The Similarities Between Professional Sports and Life – Existential Opportunism Dominates

Anyone with even the slightest interest in the subject will know that elite sport is about constant struggle. It’s about how professional athletes train, prepare and fight with both their opponents and themselves to succeed in their sport. On the one hand, this means to be able to make a living (at least for as long as their career lasts), and, on the other, getting to the top, to be listed among the best and most recognized icons.

As elite sport requires a great deal of dedication, perseverance and tenacity, it is no coincidence that most of us never become professional athletes. This is also true of tennis, which is personally my absolute favorite and, apart from the much less prestigious and less well-paid doubles tournaments, one of the most individual and competitive sports. Although it is played by millions of people worldwide, very few of those (a few thousand at most) are able to make it into the world of the real pros, and even fewer into the cream of the crop, the top 100 of the world rankings.

Of course, prestige and prize money increase significantly – somewhat exponentially, you could say – as we move up the world rankings and into the top tier of tournaments and their winners. Those who make it a long way in the most prestigious and highest-paying tournaments will both move up the world rankings and earn much higher prize money than those who are eliminated early, or who can only play in lower-level tournaments due to their lower world ranking. This means that those who manage to make it into the top 100, and preferably the very top of the rankings, can practically live in luxury on their earnings (which, apart from prize money, often consist of hefty advertising contracts), while most of the less successful players cannot even support themselves (especially with the high travel and coaching costs).

All this is a typical example of what I call ‘existential opportunism‘, where people seek to secure their own well-being and prosperity at the expense of others. In the case of tennis and elite sport, this extends to basic livelihoods and professional success and even self-fulfillment, just as it does in other areas of life and in our modern societies in general. And wherever existential opportunism is present, there is always a kind of ‘food chain’ – whether spoken or, as is so typical today, unspoken. In other words, there are a few percent, a small minority, who can really call themselves winners, and in most cases they will outdo their competitors, even if they consider them as colleagues, comrades or friends.

However, in such a pyramid-like structure, very few people have the privilege to join the elite. The vast majority is always relegated to the lower levels, from where they can very rarely, and even then only for a short time usually, make it to the top, or at least close to it. In this way the majority are constantly scraping by and trying, without ever getting anywhere near the summit. In essence, these individuals are the ‘filler’ who tend to take the short end of the stick, no matter how hard they struggle to achieve their dream, to move up, or even just to get by on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. In such a system, however, they are always needed in order to allow the elite to emerge on their backs.

The generic response to this phenomenon is, of course, that such is the nature of competition. And because people have different backgrounds, talents, abilities and experiences, depending on these, some are more and some are less likely to win many times over, and thus be successful. But with this comes the possibility that, even if you are hard-working, you may not do as well in tennis, other professional sports or any other field, due to different aptitudes and backgrounds and circumstances, and in this respect, in no small part, sheer luck. Thus, many people work hard to be successful in vain, as they are never given the chance to be among the elite for long.

In sports, this can be seen as a more or less objective obstacle, since it may be said that you have not chosen the sport that suits you best. In real life, however, this means that for many people, it is terribly difficult to break out of their circumstances and find the profession or career path that best suits them, and that will allow them to thrive and achieve personal success, without significant external help. So basically our societies today have the same expectations of all of us as they do of elite athletes, and the pyramidal nature of the system means that even trying to meet these expectations is no guarantee of success.

Just how unfair such a system can be is now quite obvious, and even the world of tennis, among others, is trying to do something to level the playing field and the prize money. This is true even though there are still extreme imbalances in the latter field in favor of the most successful players. And that, once again, is probably due to the generally accepted and applied law of supply and demand, which determines the reward of athletes – and basically everyone else – on the basis of a completely distorted, disproportionate and elitist value system.

To correct this, it should be even more evident in everyday life, in society and in the economy, that we need to do our utmost to level the playing field and to reduce existential opportunism. While in professional sports it is always inevitable at some level (since competition is their very essence), in our everyday lives it should not be the case. For one of the most important qualities that can make us civilized is that we do not live according to the law of the jungle, as is so characteristic of nature. But as long as things are unchanged, inequalities will persist or grow, and our societies will be neither truly civilized nor sustainable.

The prevention of this can be achieved through the initiation of appropriate regulation, as well as through conscious, organized action by all those concerned. And since the pyramid structure is essentially the same everywhere, heavily favoring the elite, this is true for the majority of individuals in general, and for the vast majority of civil society in every society. And what about the competition, then? Well, fortunately, it is very much possible to compete amicably, while cooperating with each other as much as possible, and ensuring civilized conditions and quality through various regulatory mechanisms. If this already works to some extent in tennis and other professional sports, where fierce competition is essential, why shouldn’t we strive to make it work in our everyday lives?

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