Most popular sports today were created in an earlier era, and by all rights should be obsolete. Some sports, like archery, shooting and the javelin throw, have hunting connections. Many others emphasise physical strength, skill, speed and endurance. Think of weightlifting and swimming. Team sports like football reflect the importance of coordinated action, which is vital on the battlefield. Coordinated action remains important in contemporary life, for example in numerous offices where teams of workers seek to outdo competitors.
Elite sports also attract spectators, an important function especially when entertainment is tied to marketing.
Despite these functional connections between sport and society, it is curious that so few sports give priority to skills needed to survive and thrive in a world in which mental skills are a central feature. Consider a few new sports inspired by contemporary life.
Congestion challenge Contestants sit in their cars, wired up to monitor their brain waves, and spend hours in a heavy traffic scenario specially engineered to provoke road rage. The winner is the person who can maintain the most stable brain waves while simultaneously negotiating the traffic in a skilled manner, as judged by an artificially intelligent (AI) driving-skill monitor.
Question dodging Contestants ask each other challenging questions. Answers are judged according to how successfully they avoid giving a straightforward answer. Two or more can play, each asking questions and dodging the questions they are asked. Rambling responses receive a low score, whereas responses that seem plausible while having little substantive content are scored highly, by an independent panel. Laughing leads to disqualification. Career politicians are excluded as having an unfair advantage.
Shopping marathon This is a competitive enactment of “shop till you drop.” Contestants are given a credit limit and then must shop continuously for as long as possible, finishing when they spend their last cent. Most events last for days, during which time no food is allowed, only water. Keeping eyes shut for more than a few seconds is not allowed.
Sit-out Two dozen contestants sit at desks in a room facing the front and listening to a speaker. Each contestant is monitored for physical motion and brain waves. The winner is the person who remains awake and maintains focus on an incredibly boring speech, with calm and natural body motions and no tensing of muscles throughout the body.
Smile-a-thon Contestants must maintain a smile and associated positive body language while being exposed to rudeness, verbal abuse and absurd behaviour. They take turns trying to disturb the smiles of other contestants. Smiling authenticity is judged by an independent panel supported by AI.
Binge-watch This is an endurance event. Contestants watch a boring show on a screen while their brain waves are monitored. Beta waves must be maintained, and even a short period of sleep or daydreaming means disqualification. Body movement incurs penalties. The event continues until only one contestant remains.
Kafka challenge Contestants have to negotiate bureaucratic regulations that change in an unpredictable pattern designed to prevent the completion of an assigned task and to generate frustration. To win, it is necessary to keep going longer than any other contestant. Some games last for weeks or months. Psychiatrists are at hand to treat psychological injuries.
The new frontier for competitive endeavour is mental rather than physical. Using muscles is very much the old paradigm, suitable for when farm and factory work predominated. Today, in a post-industrial society, mental and emotional capacities are more valued, so it is only appropriate that sports encourage and recognise extreme ability in these domains.
You might think new sports like these would not be entertaining, but there is great scope for dramatising ordinary actions. Reality television paved the way for the entertainment value of dull everyday activity. There are endless possibilities for close-ups of faces, brain-wave monitors, contestants who drop out or crack up, interviews with contenders, and commentators giving opinions about the course of the competition. After all, many physical sports are either incredibly slow, like cricket, or incredibly repetitious, like tennis. Spectators are attracted by the contest. Who, after all, watches reruns of last year’s events?
Future mental-emotional sports will be just as exciting as old-style muscle-based ones and will lead to new sporting celebrities, valued for their minds rather than their bodies. Just think how many children will be inspired by these celebrities to practise for years to develop their minds. Rather than perfecting a golf swing, the next frontier is mind control.
Brian Martin, email@example.com
Just to be clear, this is a satire. Actually, I’m a critic of elite sports (while admiring the athletes), especially the Olympics, and support participation in cooperative games.
Thanks to Aloysia Brooks, Sharon Callaghan, Suzzanne Gray, Tim Johnson-Newell, Olga Kuchinskaya and Yasmin Rittau for valuable feedback. Sharon and Yasmin pointed to present-day versions of some of these “future sports,” and noted that they can foster valuable skills or undesirable behaviours, or both. So far, though, there are no world championships for any of these mental sports. Meditation may be good for you, but should it be a competitive event?