Competitive sports: the pursuit of emptiness

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Competitive sports: the pursuit of emptiness

There is a scene in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ where the runner Harold Abrahams sits in the dressing room having won the ultimate individual sports competition, the Olympic 100m gold.

There is no elation, in fact the scene depicts him with feelings of emptiness, looking rather flat, probably quite unlike how he thought he would feel. I have no idea whether this is a true depiction of the real life events it charts, but it certainly spoke to me as I recall that scene vividly from a film I haven’t seen for years…

Bike fit and ready to suffer

May 2010, Isle of Skye, west coast of Scotland. It’s unusually hot, in fact the hottest day on Skye that year, 25 degrees. It’s a rare, beautiful, blue sky day with only a few ripples of clouds and there are stunning views all around.

But I’m not seeing any of this properly through my weary, sweat-soaked eyes. For at this moment I’m focussed on the road, slogging up the umpteenth hill of the day on a bike… a man on a mission. The euphoria from earlier has gone as my legs have turned to stone blocks, but as I close in on hour number five, the aim remains: complete the 95 miles (155 kilometres) and 3000 metres of climbing and get back before as many people as possible. It’s not really a sports competition as it’s not officially a race. But you couldn’t convince me of that, nor the guys who left me behind at hour three.

I’m not the fastest, but I reassure myself with being supremely bike fit, and that pushing, pushing, pushing will bring me the rewards I seek. The satisfaction of another goal conquered, another box ticked.

Feeling the muscle burn!

I can barely turn the pedals and can feel the burn in my muscles go deep – right to the bone, constant low-level agony. I stop at one point, wanting to give up, but that isn’t an option; I’m in a sporting competition with myself, the ultimate contest.

Finally, with the last hill climbed, it’s downhill and with the wind behind me it’s a fast, free ride into the finish line. It still hurts but it’s faster now and the end is in sight. As I make it back I have a satisfied feeling as I collapse on the floor of the village hall to gather myself. This isn’t a big deal to me, it’s what I do – cycle far, run fast, swim hard.

Competitive sports are within me, a part of how I identify myself.

As I take stock and refuel (we athletes don’t call it eating so much as filling up) like a car at the garage, the adrenaline that’s been pushing me around this island starts to leave my body and the glow is replaced with hard reality… what now? I came here alone so there’s no one here to share the moment with: I’m a little bit lost, what will I do now… with the rest of the weekend?

I head back to the B&B, I shower away the sweat and grime and then I slump on the bed, exhausted and with a fair bit of heatstroke and dehydration. I am alone with myself, properly connected to my body in a quiet stillness for the first moment today, no longer shutting down to the clear signals it has been giving me for the last few hours. Feelings of emptiness arise that grip me… then slowly, tears roll down my cheeks and an almost desolate feeling takes over.

My body cannot hide how I truly feel after a sports competition – empty and sad.

Starting to question the exercise pain

Looking back, it’s actually beautiful to feel the tears and the strong sadness that comes with it. But at the time it was confusing: I should be euphoric, right? … another great achievement, a fantastic personal effort. But instead I’m unsettled and unfulfilled. I can kid myself that I’m proud of myself, tell myself how not many others can do this, but deep down I question…

Why am I doing this? When will it ever be enough? What is the point of putting myself through this pain, triumphing over another in a sports competition, investing in being faster, fitter, harder? This isn’t a new feeling but it is stronger and clearer than ever. Where am I really going with all this, where does it end, and what am I really looking for?

Letting go of competitive sports

Fast-forward to today and I don’t do this to my body anymore.

But I had to go through a lot more muscle burn and exercise pain to get to this point, continually putting my body through more of these kind of races and more resultant feelings of emptiness.

Competitive sport always brought disappointment: I could finish first and it would be the same feeling. There was no eureka moment where I said enough, stop! It just happened over time as I learned what it is to truly respect my body, exercise within my limits and create a healthier vital presence.

Because I was super-fit, I was considered ‘healthy’ – but no way! You can’t be healthy if you are constantly tired, always hungry, with swinging moods and anxious about fitting in more training.

So now, instead of fighting my way through exercise, there is no clock to race and I stop when I’m tired. I feel lighter on my feet and eat foods to nourish me, not to fill the engine.

Recognising it’s about how I am too

The way I am overall has changed too – now it’s about the quality I feel within me, honouring what I feel in my body. I am more with myself around others so they get a much better version of me, and I no longer have that restless feeling that whatever training I do is not going to be enough. I get out of bed easily in the mornings without having to unglue my eyes as I did before.

I can concentrate on tasks and engage with people with clarity and purpose. I can share more fun, more joy and loving moments with others, no longer distracted by this solitary, self-centred pursuit with feelings of emptiness that competitive sports always brought me.

I was questioning many things when I first heard presentations by Serge Benhayon and Universal Medicine which inspired me to reconnect to what I had felt for years but overridden because it wasn’t what society was telling me, leading me to doubt myself.


Stephen Gammack now

Choosing a new way to be

I don’t need to outdo others to feel amazing – now I know if a feeling comes from within my body it is always true and that it’s infinitely self-caring to respect it.

And I know that competitive sport isn’t the fix it’s made out to be; that it damages and disconnects us far more than we realise.

There is another way to be that respects your own body and doesn’t rely on outdoing others or being faster or fitter or stronger to feel amazing.

Being with myself is more fulfilling than competitive sports and from that being, my potential living feels limit-less. I reckon that’s the way I will now choose, to no longer be in pursuit of the feelings of emptiness.


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    By Stephen Gammack, Health & Fitness Teacher

    Stephen has worked in health promotion for his career of 15 years across both the public and private sectors. He works with clients of all ages and levels to make fitness about wellness.