A FAN’S NOTES, The Rumpus Sports Column #21: Skiing With Rifles

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“It’s not a sport if you can play it with a beer in one hand.”

Fred Morrison, whose death last week was sandwiched between the twin excesses of the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, played an important part in my sporting life, so I wanted to mention here that he passed away on Tuesday, February 9, 2010. Morrison died roughly 53 years after he invented the Pluto Platter, which was later renamed the Frisbee. His New York Times obituary includes a link to Morrison’s original 1957 patent, featuring a diagram of a flying disc much like the one I chased after while playing Ultimate with my friends during college. For this reason (and for the title: “Fred Morrison, Creator of a Popular Flying Plate, Dies at 90”), the Times obituary is one of my favorite sports-related articles in recent memory.

I know a lot of people who would claim that Morrison’s obituary has nothing at all to do with sports, because (they would argue) Ultimate is not truly a sport, and neither is Frisbee golf. My older brother used to quote a friend on this subject: “It’s not a sport if you can play it with a beer in one hand.”

The question of what is and what is not a sport is especially relevant at the moment thanks to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. All kinds of highly trained athletes from all over the world are gathered there as we speak, many of them participating in events that, to some, are not sports in any meaningful sense. That’s not to say these events are not dangerous and challenging, and I mean no disrespect to the Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died during a practice run before his event officially began. But I’ve always been somewhat confused about what makes luge a sport—and much more confused by events like the biathlon, where you ski, then you shoot a rifle at a target, then you keep skiing. I mean, in Frisbee golf, you don’t have accoutrements like skis or firearms of any kind. You have to hit the target with nothing but your own eyes, your arm and a plastic disc. It doesn’t require much stamina, admittedly, but it does require a display of physical skill that is not mediated by multiple layers of specialized equipment.

(All right, I just turned on the TV and watched a few minutes of the men’s biathlon competition. It requires a great deal of athleticism. You have to ski fast but keep your heart rate down so you can hold your rifle steady while you aim and shoot. So maybe it’s a sport.)

In my household, my wife is the athlete, although she doesn’t play a sport, exactly. She’s a modern dancer. When I watch her perform I’m always struck by how trusting she and her fellow dancers are as they support, catch and lift each other during sometimes dizzying combinations of carefully choreographed phrases. Lately, though, my wife hasn’t been dancing very much. She’s going through a whole different kind of physical challenge—she’s five and a half months pregnant, and during that time she has participated in a wide array of non-competitive yet grueling events that tax and sometimes traumatize her body in a way that dance almost never does. Morning sickness was a kind of marathon for her, except it lasted for weeks, not hours.

Her pregnancy has presented me with my own intermittent Winter Olympics. After the blizzard that passed through New York in January, my wife woke me up in the morning and begged me to go buy her apple juice. Normally this would be easy, but not that day: the streets had just been plowed, so at every corner I had to climb over pelvis-high drifts that had been pushed up onto the curbs. I lost my cell phone in the effort—it dropped out of my pants pocket, into a frosty three-foot-high drift, and I never found it. After taking part in the Drift Climbing event, then the Losing My Phone event, and finally the Phone Recovery event (I suppose you could say I was disqualified from that one), I came home with a single, relatively modest-sized jug of apple juice. When I explained to my nauseous wife how I had lost my uninsured cell phone in the snow, her brow creased with worry. She may have wondered momentarily if marrying a more athletic man would have made her life easier. Now she could clearly see that she would have to be the wife, the mother and the family acrobat.

Soon enough my wife and I went out, both bundled in coats, and began retracing my path to the supermarket, looking down at the snow beneath our boots. My wife dialed my number once, twice, a third time, and we listened for a snow-muffled ring tone. I imagined then that the buried phone’s song would seem especially forlorn if we heard it. But we didn’t. We heard the sounds of traffic on Fourth Avenue, and that was it.

So maybe it isn’t a sport. But compared to some of what’s happening in Canada right now, looking for a lost cell phone seems pretty close.


Brian Schwartz teaches writing at New York University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in print publications on both coasts, and online at Ascent and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. More from this author →