Am I a bitter killjoy? You bet. If there were an Olympics competition in bitter killjoyism—and I don't understand why there's not—I could bring to bear my forty years of intensive (if not intentional) training and make myself the spunky, crowd-beloved Mary Lou Retton of the sport.
Admittedly, most Olympic sports require more skill, stamina, and strength (of whatever variety) than stacking beer cans, so we are distracted by the exertion of the athletes and the difficulty of the tasks set forth and lose sight of the essential arbitrariness of it all. Although the various events in gymnastics, for example, are extraordinarily difficult, I can't really respond to them with any passion because all I see is some short, buff dude swinging around on some rings. Why is he doing that? What would possess him? What makes a young person—and they start very, very young, of course—decide he wants to surrender much of his life to learn to perform this useless, insanely difficult task. Yes, in the abstract, I suppose I can appreciate his devotion and his discipline—but to what end? I can't help thinking such a wealth of devotion and discipline could be put to better use.
Now a case could be made that sports such as running and swimming aren't really 'invented' by us; they're natural human activities. Animals in the wild run and swim without needing an Olympics arena or a gold medal to validate their accomplishments. As a participatory activity, I can completely understand running and swimming—but as a spectator sport that sedentary viewers get an adrenaline rush from? Really? Your life is somehow enriched when Michael Phelps gets another medal? You feel that you have some stake in his achievements simply because he's from the United States and you, likewise, are from the United States.
Noam Chomsky, a professional nerd and killjoy, described spectator sports as (I'm paraphrasing here) the training ground for jingoism and nationalism. It's easy to see his point when you remember that swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are douchebags of epic proportions. I mean, they're like Adam Levine-level douchebags, which is no small Olympian feat in itself. So why should I want them to win rather than, say, some modest, hardworking Swede who has a heartfelt dream but little realistic chance of succeeding? Is Lochte's nationality supposed to trump his douchiness?
None of this is intended to criticize a person's enthusiasm for watching sports. (And I need to make a significant distinction between watching sports and playing them. An enthusiasm in participating in a game or activity of some sort is infinitely more comprehensible—to me, anyway—than a vicarious pleasure in somebody else's participation.) This is only a way of working out what I don't understand about it. I anticipate that many would argue that this is where the problem lies: I am trying to understand spectator sports rather than feel their innate appeal. But on that level too, I draw a blank. I don't feel any connection between them and me. The narcissist in me is always ready to ask, 'Yeah, but what does this have to do with me?' Maybe you simply can't be a hardcore misanthrope and a sports fan at the same time; maybe being a sports fan requires some fellow-felling, an interest in the preoccupations of others. My reflexive response—a profoundly dysfunctional one, of course—is that since sports preoccupy so many people, there's probably something wrong with or at least questionable about them. The most visible and invested sports fans don't inspire me to want to be like them.
I can't think of many subsets of American culture that are as generally reviled as sports haters. You might as well be a communist, child-molesting Islamic fundamentalist. Your politics, your sexuality, and your religion might differ, but if you can talk about yesterday's game in line at the DMV, there's something sufficiently human about you. If, on the other hand, you say, 'I don't follow any sports,' you've identified yourself as one of those people—a species as alien and indecipherable as a bacterium or Michael Jackson.