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Posted by Ken Campbell July 26, 2008 1 Comment 783 views

I was thinking the other day about sports on television. More specifically, I was thinking about how Saturday afternoons used to belong to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Each and every Saturday, a cornucopia of sport was laid out for eager young eyes. There were the usuals, the basketball, the futbol, track and swimming, but there was so much more. Cliff diving in Acapulco (a “sport” that was literally invented by the TV show), motorcycle races on ice from a frozen pond somewhere north of Helsinki. There was ski jumping (remember the agony of defeat segment during the intro?) Jim McKay was the host, guiding the show from one scene to the next: boxing in Berlin to blue-water fishing in Cozumel, to Las Vegas, where some nutty bastard would demonstrate catching bullets in his teeth. That’s still a vivid memory for me.

I really liked Wide World of Sports.

ABC was the only channel we got when I was growing up in Santa Barbara, California. Back then, the other big sporting event that we used to beam into our living room was the Olympics. I have another fairly vivid recollection of a completely different take on “sport” that I picked up from watching the Innsbruck games in 1976. One that did not inspire me as much.

I was watching figure skating. (Remember, we only had the one TV channel. I had no choice.) Back in those days, they used to televise the figure skating compulsories. The compulsory round of the competition took place a day or two before the more glamorous portion of the skating calendar. Skaters would be graded on their precision, turning perfect figure 8’s and scribing exact geometry into the ice with their razor-sharp blades. Judges stood off to the side, their eyes glued to the skaters feet, to the motion and the path of the blade on the slick, glossy surface. Competitors dressed in their sweats… no one cared what they wore. There were no sequined costumes here.

It was boring. Like watching paint dry. Then watching it age, weather, crack and flake away in the wind. Dead boring. It’s not on anymore. I don’t even know if such a thing as the compulsory round even exists these days. And I don’t care. I hated it, and I was just a spectator. I can only imagine how dull it would be to have to be the one doing the exercises. I can understand why so many skaters burn out so young. Televised Olympic broadcasts of the future are unlikely to be scheduling any air time to these robotic loops and pointy turns.

But I’ll bet there are a few competitors who really like doing them. It’s like that in every activity. There are those who enjoy doing what they do from the heart, and others who do it from the head. I can’t tell you if one way is better than the other, but I have my own views on the matter.

Of all the outdoor activities I have pursued, I have spent the most time kayaking. I have taught hundreds of classes and taken quite a few as well. I was a certified instructor back when the certification was less precise than it is now, less competitive. There are two main governing bodies for sea kayaking presently, each with its own circuitous and problematic process of certification. There is a heavy emphasis in both of the programs, however, on correct paddle strokes, form and ergonomic precision. Bow rudder strokes are evaluated by trainers, who watch the candidate’s shoulder positioning, monitor the placement and feather of the blade in the water, and grade the degree of torso rotation. Forward strokes, draws and sweeps all get the same attention. The focus is on the minute, the micro view of kayaking, as it were. Each level of achievement has its set of required maneuvers. It is the compulsories of kayaking.

And it’s just as boring. There is less talk of the places a kayak can take a person and much more discussion of proper spine position and the newest theory of paddling technique. Just as the wondrous flight of figure skating is lost in the pointless precision of executing the perfect circle, the true reason for paddling is obscured by someone else’s requirements being applied to individual circumstances and goals.

In sea kayaking, and probably everything else, I tend toward the Wide World of Sports view rather than the figure skating compulsories paradigm. It’s really quite simple. My kayak is a vehicle, designed to take me to places I would never otherwise see. The vehicle should not be confused with the journey (or the destination, for that matter). I kayak for where the kayak can take me, and while I know it is important to be efficient in my paddling, my technique is never the most important thing.

I know how to do a proper forward stroke, but I don’t want to care about that too much. I want to see the oystercatchers on the rocks by the cave entrance, hear their shrill calls as I paddle through their neighborhood on the back of a fast-moving swell. I want to listen for the sound of the foghorn on a winter day in the Strait, watch the seals as they watch me. I want the exuberance and unexpected delight that every new day on the water brings. I don’t want my experience diluted with talk of the ideal catch point for the forward sweep or the recommended amount of boat tilt while performing a bracing turn.

(I have taken the time to learn these strokes and these comments are in no way meant to belittle their value. I also teach these skills in a variety of kayaking classes and I coach my students as best I can in the proper execution of each of them. It’s just that I see the individual skills as worthwhile only in as much as they make the journey possible.)

There will always be those who are so caught up in the specifications for their stereo, they will never really hear the music. The guy who knows every feature of his car’s engine, who loves every roll in the upholstery, but who can’t think of anywhere to drive. The kayakers who are so focused on passing their next evaluation, moving up to the next rung on their kayaking ladders, that they never see the salmon jumping or hear the waves crashing on the sand.

They’ll deny it, of course. And maybe they’re right. This is just my opinion, and you know what they say about opinions.

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