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I can show you a trick or two which I don't teach to everybody," Mark Twain wrote to a would-be collaborator. "Bring along lots of dry statistics. Ingeniously used, they just make a reader smack his chops in gratitude."
Twain's advice was taken to heart by all America, and nowhere practiced more furiously than in sport. The numbers sluice in torrents. The rise and fall of scores and standings and records and gates and averages and ratings has become a familiar aspect of human frolic. Yet at present there are some numbers that seem to mount not as part of cyclical trends but ever upward. These are the statistics describing the growth of participant sports, and they may well show a sea change in American habits and values.
Some 40 million people now play tennis in this country, twice as many as five years ago. Perhaps 25 million run, half of them in compulsive earnest, a 200% gain in four years. Seventy-five million bicycle, also up. Sixty million fish, 20 million hunt, 19 million ride, 12 million ski, and—can this be right?—22 million Americans now roller skate.
Although most of the surveys that come up with these figures reflect Twain's high regard for ingenuity, one fact appears unassailable. Every sport that calls upon its devotees to get out and perform is expanding. The statistic with the most force: 47% of all Americans now say they engage in some sort of physical exercise—double the number in 1961, according to a recent Gallup poll. And there seems to be no sign of a slowdown. If this is the year of the participant, it is only because we haven't seen anything yet.
These events have some clear explanations. The rise in participation has naturally paralleled increases in leisure time. Surely the social emancipation of women has found gratifying expression in active sport. And a reason for the rush to those endeavors calling for sustained heavy breathing is a concern for better health, although Dr. Roger Bannister rightly calls the connection between vigorous exercise and good health "a tangly web."
Resistance to many diseases is associated with good physical condition. Research undertaken by Dr. Kenneth Cooper at his Aerobics Center in Dallas has shown that the more endurance a subject displays on a treadmill, the better his scores on coronary-disease risk factors such as hypertension, blood lipids and body fat. A remarkable Blue Cross/Blue Shield advertisement states that 71-year-old jogger Mavis Lindgren cured a lifetime of colds by commencing a running program nine years ago. That is a bold conclusion, as it seems to overlook a lesson in basic logic, namely that associated with doesn't mean caused by.
A fine case in point is the statistical observation of Dr. Thomas J. Bassler, a California pathologist and runner, that no one who has finished a marathon in less than four hours within the previous six years has fallen victim to a certified heart attack. The tempting conclusion is that marathoning prevents heart attacks, and it probably does in many cases, but there is also the strong possibility that running 26 miles and 385 yards at nine minutes per mile is simply a stern screening process, separating the healthy hearts from the faint. So the causal connection between fitness and the health of one's heart remains unproved. Indeed, three recent studies summarized in The Journal of the American Medical Association, in which post-cardiac patients who exercised were compared with sedentary ones, showed no difference in heart function or in how long the two groups lived.
In one sense, improving fitness may mask heart disease. Exercise that makes the lungs and muscles more efficient means the heart doesn't have to work as hard for the body to handle a specific stress. A patient may feel better, perform better, but his heart is no stronger.
Studies have not been able to show that longevity is increased through exercise, yet the sensations of fitness exert a profound appeal. For many, faithful running or swimming or cycling or cross-country skiing is a treasured aid to living vividly and with improved, if not perfect, spirits.
Even while understanding the fundamental reasons for our increasing interest in participant sports, one may still be curious about the abrupt leap in the last couple of years. A letter I received from Amy Scott, 14, of Brookfield, Mass., asks, "Why did running and jogging change from a fad to a sport?" This runner of 20 years feels that Amy has it backward, that running used to be a sport, is now smothered by fad, and we all hope it will make it back to a sport again. Running—and to a degree most other burgeoning physical activities—has demonstrated what might be thought of as a critical mass theory of growth. People have always run, but so few that their solitude made them symbols of loneliness. Slowly their numbers advanced, until a point was reached—Frank Shorter's victory in the 1972 Olympic marathon is as good a guess as any—when a social chain reaction began. Growth became geometric, and fed on itself, because once past that point of no return, running was visible. All those checks on human behavior that apply when one has to go it alone fell away. As the "me" decade provided a fine excuse to soak in hot tubs, strut in discos and vote for Proposition 13, running became for many an exhilarating self-indulgence. Vigorous sport has always called to us from our genes, from our childhoods, but not, until recently, from our culture. When it finally did, an explosion was inevitable.