The Athlete

In Ancient Rome, the gladiatorial contests held in grand venues such as the Colosseum were spectacles comparable to the biggest sporting events in existence today. Seating up to 80 000 people from all classes and creeds, the Colosseum most likely would have had a similarly festive and feverish atmosphere to many of today’s biggest soccer or rugby stadiums on an important game day. And when reading deeper into the nuances of the Ancient Roman tradition, it seems that modern-day sporting events are actually alike in many ways to the pitting of gladiators against one another for the purpose of entertainment, particularly when it comes to the psychology of the fans. Given the enormous popularity of sport today, both commercially and within society, it is imperative to interrogate what has drawn such colossal crowds of fanatic supporters to watch these spectacles over the centuries.

Whilst some may argue that the slaughter of men for entertainment in the Colosseum was indicative of the savagery and immorality of the Roman Empire, it was, however, by far the most advanced culture of its era. And while to some extent there was an appeal for bloodlust from those attending the gladiatorial games, historians suggest that contrary to most modern depictions of gladiator battles, more than half of all contests actually ended with both competitors surviving to fight another day. In fact, for the sponsors of the gladiators, their fighters were an extremely valuable investment, with financiers ensuring the best medical care, a highly specialised diet, and even paying high wages for these so-called slaves – often earning more than an Ancient Roman teacher’s annual wage from a single fight, according to some historians. And despite the obvious danger, the allure of stardom that these gladiators garnered was so appealing that even free men of noble stature would choose to become professional fighters.

Today, while the imminent risk of death is perhaps not as prevalent in most popular sports, the zealous fanaticism surrounding the game remains. As an example of the purely economic significance of this phenomenon, at the age of 25, the Brazilian footballer Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, known by his fans simply as Neymar, became the most expensive player in the world. With a transfer fee of €222 million, the striker moved from Barcelona FC to Paris Saint-Germaine (PSG) in a record-breaking deal in 2017. And these are just the inter-club transfer fees, with Neymar’s wages costing the club close to €700 000 per week, above and beyond the original deal negotiated to release the player from his previous contract. And while many purists may argue that the surreal sums paid to acquire specific players has the potential to ruin the game, it is the loyalty, passion and lifelong dedication of the millions of fans across the globe that fund these exorbitant deals at the end of the day.

At first sight, the extreme nature of fandom seems to have very little rational grounding. Why would someone in South Africa, Zambia, China or the Philippines care if eleven men wearing red shirts in Manchester kicked the ball into a net one fewer times than the team wearing blue? This “fan” has most likely never been anywhere near the Greater Manchester region and has never met a player from the squad, but even if they had, it would not rationalise the act of investing so much time and emotion in the team’s success or failure. Yet, every weekend, there are tears shed, tantrums thrown, and even sleepless nights had because of this arbitrary fanatic dedication.

What is overlooked when viewing sport in this way, however, is the greater societal significance these events represent. In some sense, the banding together of sports fans can be seen as something of a tribal, communal, or even spiritual response to a deep-rooted need for togetherness and belonging that exists in our human nature. Not unlike a religious ritual, hundreds of thousands of devoted men and women, adorning their tribe’s colours, make a weekly pilgrimage to the hallowed ground – or gather the family around the television – to chant, scream and pray for their chosen deities to bless them with collective pride and victory over their enemies as reward for their unwavering support.

Like religion, says Dr Daniel Wann, Professor of Psychology at Murray State University, sports can bring people of all cultures and classes closer together, but also creates many rituals and rivalries that surround the games. While it is rather innocuous, although irrational, for fans to don lucky jerseys or for superstitious players to put their kit on in a certain order every game, the violence and aggression that manifests between the fans of rival teams is more serious. As strongly as sports can bond members of a community into tightly-knit tribes, it also divides people across imaginary lines. For as Dr Wann explains, the psychology of a fan is very closely linked to the psychology of a crowd, or in less desirable terms, the psychology of a mob. In these crowds, people can gain a sense of community, feeling more connected to a greater cause and less lonely, but they can just as easily lose their sense of individuality, responsibility and their normal inhibitions. Sport for the super-fan becomes a momentary escape from reality, transcending the mundane tasks of everyday life, elevated to a level where they become part of something much bigger than them.

For the athlete, not unlike the gladiator of centuries past, a career in sport is often relatively short-lived compared to many other vocations – either curtailed by serious injury or hobbling towards an end in their mid-thirties. Yet, the magnetism of possibly achieving a near-godlike stature in the hearts of millions of adoring fans is enough to entice even the most rationally inclined individual. In a purely analytical sense then, the decision for a person to become a professional athlete is a fascinating one, with the life of a sportsperson and the microcosm of the sporting world representing a highly-charged version of the real world. Here, every moment seems filled with drama and passion, every movement is observed with bated breath across the globe, and a split-second decision could eventuate in pure elation or extreme sorrow – life or death. Sport then, as one of the purest forms of human expression, represents a side of human nature where an individual, as a player or supporter, can lose a sense of individuality, solitude, and inhibition in the roar of the crowd, and for a second, become part of something greater than what awaits when the deafening cheers subside.