May 15, 2002

I am a car racing fan. I enjoy the competition, the technology, the excitement, and when it gets right down to it, I also enjoy the wrecks, but not in the way you probably expect.

Often "you only watch racing to see the accidents" is used as a slur against the sport and its fans. Racing has been compared to gladiatorial contests, implying that death is the ultimate goal and spectacle is only entertaining when soaked in blood. But that's just because people are dumb, or think "real" sport always involves a ball. Just what do you think that ball really represents anyway?

Racing is much more analogous to a different group of ancient Romans... the bestiarii. The bestiarii were a group of specialists dedicated not to fighting men, but instead to fighting animals. As with all such contests, the ultimate goal was death, but more the death of the animal than the man. It was cruel, sometimes unbelievably so to our eyes. But there was a purpose.

The bestarii symbolized Rome's mastery of the natural world, as the gladiators symbolized its mastery of the peoples of the world. Cruelty was the only universally accepted way of getting these points across, and as the masters of (what they saw as) the most powerful civilization in history, the Romans perforce had to also be the most brutal and cruel in history. The Romans did not root for the animals... they rooted for the men. An animal killing a bestiarii represented a symbolic defeat for the Roman people, while the death of an animal represented victory.

Cruelty continued to be used this way, albeit in less spectacular fashion, right up until the industrialized age. In many parts of the world it still is seen as the only way to maintain the discipline of the mob.

Fortunately, for the rest of Eurasia’s and Africa's wildlife at least, Roman civilization collapsed in the west and got busy just trying to stay alive in the east, and gladiatorial celebrations sort of faded away. Nothing even came close until the industrial era clanked and steamed onto the world's stage more than a thousand years later.

By that time any idiot with a rifle could bring down a lion, so mastery over beasts wasn't really all that amazing. Mastery over machines, however, was a right good trick and guaranteed to impress. And so machine racing, at first with trains and boats, but later with cars and airplanes and pretty much anything else with an engine and the ability to move, was born.

It's amazing to think about, but at first mortal danger was considered an acceptable risk by all parties involved. Spectators, passengers, and participants; men, women, and children, all accepted ridiculous risks that could and regularly did kill large numbers of them just so they could prove their mastery over these mysterious, monstrous machines. All you have to do to see how far we've come is to watch films of old car races like the Indianapolis 500, Le Mans, or Monza. You regularly see men wearing t-shirts and leather helmets exceeding 100 miles per hour (160 kph) rocketing past spectators that are standing on the track.

It took many, many horrific accidents over decades of time before safety even became an issue, and it took the sea change in social mores of the 1960s before the industrialized world turned it into a science. Nowadays deaths in racing events are quite rare, and each one sparks long, serious investigations that result in substantial improvements in survivability not only for drivers, but for spectators as well. It is very common to watch a vehicle completely disintegrate into thousands of pieces only to have the driver promptly walk away after the dust has settled.

What you're looking at when you see a race car crash and the driver walk away is not some garish orgy of blood and destruction narrowly avoided. It is a symbolic demonstration of our mastery over machines, the beasts of our modern era. The drivers are our bestiarii.

At these events a single person is driving a machine to such extremes that it is no exaggeration to say it is actively attempting to kill him or her at all times. At the moment of impact in a race crash, on a basic, almost subconscious level, you are watching a wild animal attempting to kill a human being. The bestiarii has lost control, and the panther is leaping at his throat. As a race fan for nearly 20 years I can state with absolute certainty that no one is celebrating that moment. It is only when the driver exits the car, or rather what is left of it, and waves to the crowd that celebrations begin. At that point we all know that the beast's attempt to kill the human has only resulted in its own destruction, something well worth celebrating.

Injury and death are never celebrated. The beast has won then, has proven to be our master. It is only when the mainstream "popular" media get their hands on something like this that it turns into a circus, because to the mainstream media nothing sells advertising quite as well as spectacular death. To them it's coincidental that it happened at a race.

And before you roll your eyes and sneer cynically about "men and boys", please realize that all sports are either symbolic wars (football, basketball, baseball, etc., with no less than a stylized severed human head as the point of contention), or symbolic demonstrations of absolute mastery over the environment, an animal, a machine, or one's self. When it comes down to brass tacks, it really isn't about the points at all, and never was.

Gladiator and bestiarii contests were about real death and destruction on titanic scales because the common people were so superstitious, ignorant, and violent that it was the only thing they really understood. And those were the civilized ones. To try and equate a modern sport of any sort, be it racing, football, or even the abstracted kabuki of professional wrestling to them is to at best publicly display a particularly onerous form of ignorance. Such attempts almost willfully ignore the billions of dollars and man-years of labor that are spent every year making each and every sport as safe as possible. It ignores the sophistication of the common people of industrialized nations, who simply will not tolerate the blood and death of human beings, and increasingly of animals, as sport in any nation. It ignores the fact that modern professional athletics today not only requires someone to have pure athletic ability, but frequently college-level education and cutthroat business savvy to be truly successful.

Compared to these modern athletes, a gladiator or bestiarii is just a thug with a sharp stick. And we have all come a long, long way from the roaring mob of the coliseum. Survival is what impresses us modern folk the most, not an artful death. Conquering machines of our own making is far more important than killing some poor unlucky bastard of a lion. Getting everyone off the field at the end of the game is far better than making sure we kill a few more before we're done.

And that makes us better than them, even if we do all have the same brains.

Posted by scott at May 15, 2002 04:57 PM

eMail this entry!

Exception: Boxing! There is your modern day blood sport.

Posted by: Pat on May 15, 2002 10:39 PM

the Romans invented boxing, we can't be that much better than them.

Posted by: jim w on January 14, 2005 11:06 AM

It's the Colosseum not coliseum. But other than that, I agree!

Posted by: P.R.P on January 15, 2006 09:08 AM
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