I remember the gun firing, followed by a silence as I scrambled out of the blocks. My adolescent, skinny legs turning hastily. The following ten or so seconds are non-existent in my memory. The last thing I can remember is surging towards the line and dipping to the point of very nearly losing my balance. My mum excitedly stood close in the crowd, and the feeling of elation, of winning, for the first time really hit me.
It’s been twelve years since winning the English Schools junior boy’s 100m title and I’m still most probably addicted: to winning, to the feeling of constantly bettering oneself, improving physically, triumphing mentally in dealing with pressure situations. And to training for another competitive season; because, your best race is always just round the corner. And that’s how it gets you.
When we look at art or cultural images of the addict, we see Danny Boyle’s Mark Renton preparing his heroin needle or perhaps the homeless person clutching a can of K Cider in a park as the sun rises.
We have such images so that we can reassure ourselves that addicts sit in a land of delinquency or failure, letting us off the hook, whilst we pity victims of traditional types of addiction. But of course, we categorise addiction in this way to mask those of our own. Addiction to drugs, sex, alcohol and the like do not even begin to give a fair representation on the issue. The traditional addict is really just a less respectable form of ourselves.
The addiction most prevalent in my life is that of physical exercise. Physical exercise in itself has addictive qualities; the feel good factor post-workout, the noticeable improvement in physique and health. But it also draws an important similarity to the allure of drugs. Whilst we purge our bodies we forget life’s many problems for a moment, akin to the finite escape of drugs on a night out. The allure of drugs is the same to that of exercise or entertainment. Its attraction concerns the escape from one’s everyday problems; an opportunity briefly to not be stuck inside reality battling the difficulties of life. The allure of most addictions is a natural extension of the capitalist logic of wanting to feel exactly how one wants to feel – which is good – for a certain amount of time. One hedonistically exchanges cash for a substance and is able to escape for a short period. This escape, of course is a lie, and one that is, by nature, incredibly addictive, as one’s control gradually goes away, and it stops being that I Want to do it and begins being I Need to do it. This shift from what I want to what I need is one of the biggest problems we have in using our free will; some of the greatest problems I have in my life concern the confusion between what I want and what I need.
When I question whether enough is enough, and whether it’s time to hang up my spikes at the end of each season, I feel it’s difficult to answer the question of Do I want to continue? When I break it down – the training, travelling, competing etc. – I find it challenging to decide which parts I actually enjoy; perhaps, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A lot of what goes in to participation in elite sport is difficult. The training is lengthy and grueling, the travelling provides an athlete a poor quality of living, and the financial return can be non-existent. But Friedrech Nietzsche believed anything worthwhile was born not out of a God-given gift but of constant struggle and hard work. For Nietzsche, we feel pain because of the gap between the person we are at the moment and the person we could ideally be; and it’s because we can’t master the ingredients of happiness straight away that we choose to suffer greatly, in order to achieve. Though, if hardship was all it took in order for us to be fulfilled, we would all be happy. The challenge is to learn how to respond well to suffering; to embrace it, to use it to create something beautiful. And accepting hardship as part of the journey is probably the reason I continue to train, to compete, and subsequently (sometimes) to achieve. The adversity involved is almost part of the addiction and the allure of it all; it keeps me hungry, humble, and striving towards my goals.
And so, it’s no wonder I see a great number of athletes addicted to the cause: to daily exercise, to competing, to eating well. I have noticed through the years two types of athlete – the participator and the competitor. The former will have a demanding job, a partner, a social life and other interests, whereas the competitor will have a manic reliance on being the best athlete possible, forever trying to better and develop their skill. The difference between participating and competing is great; those at the top have a monk-like devotion to it – practicing for hours daily, not going out, going to bed at a certain time and carefully supplementing around the clock. This forever bridges the gap between those who just participate and those who are the best in the world. Ultimately, if you want to be the best, it’s not good enough to merely bag your ten thousand hours of practice, you have to really be addicted to it.
Today we’re addicted to our smartphones, to exercise, to alcohol, to drugs, to money, to the internet, to religion, to travel, to our jobs. Whatever one’s addiction, it serves a purpose in keeping us away from sitting and thinking about the past or the future, allowing ourselves to feel hurt, remorse or nostalgia. Addiction is not something we should necessarily eradicate, but perhaps something we can conquer; to find the least damaging and most advantageous ways to manage it. To be safely and successfully addicted.