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Dec, 2023

The Transformative Power of Sports - Part III: Soccer Balls the Size of Yeti Coolers

Part III:  Soccer Balls the Size of Yeti Coolers:  Ever think about sports a little more viscerally? Like, how remarkably ARBITRARY it all is?  Why does a size 5 soccer ball have a nine-inch diameter?  Why not twelve inches? Or twenty-four inches? …Anyone?   We’ll get back to that.

I spent most of my 20’s competing in the sport of Skeleton at the regional level in Lake Placid, NY (down an icy chute headfirst, belly down on a lunch tray at 75+ mph).  I then worked for USA Bobsled and Skeleton in several increasingly responsible titles, eventually founding the USA Skeleton Technology Program and managing National Team programs in both Lake Placid and Park City.  After leaving the Olympic Movement, I realized that I have all these sport-specific skillsets and no practical outlet to apply them.  I know how to teach Skeleton Schools, to “read” ice, which runners to use in which conditions, and the best line through curve 10 in Lake Placid (Shady II, for those in the know).  This specific knowledge, hard-earned and acquired over many years, sits in a dusty corner of the recesses of my brain.  Still, I was the beneficiary of so many other truly valuable life and business skills during that time and I am still finding new ways to apply those old lessons.  But there is still a bunch of sport-specific stuff that I know that I haven’t used in a long time—and I’m certain that I’m not the only one. 

Olympic Team Training - Park City, UT, January 2010


Athletes, fans, and sport professionals work tediously to acquire knowledge over many years for how to build skill, strength, and endurance in sport-specific endeavors. They study sport outcomes and use game rules to generate an advantage.   Statistics are collected and scrutinized.  Theories are developed.  Training and competition plans are implemented.  A lot of money is spent.  It’s certainly been argued that this work is pointless and that athletic pastimes are exercises in futility from a purely practical standpoint—if a person could apply the same effort in science, for example, we may be able to solve some of life’s most perplexing afflictions.  

But, as noted in Part 1, sports are physical performances that satisfy our evolutionary need to show human progress.  Given that definition, WHAT we do really is not that important.  THAT we do it holds substantial societal value.  Quantifying human improvement is an essential ingredient of the human experience.  And the arbitrary nature of sport proves the point.  Consider the size of a golf ball, the length of a football field, designated hitters, pitch clocks, offsides, false starts, holding, cross-checking, triple salchows, the butterfly stroke, rally point, 26.2 miles, the shape of a football, and yes, the diameter of a soccer ball. None of it means anything really, yet it holds a lot of value to a lot of people.  The contradiction is that most sport-specific knowledge has zero application to human survival.  And yet, the fact that it’s all relatively arbitrary fosters an incredible diversity in human performance when you look at all physical performances from a global perspective.  The skills that individuals develop in arbitrary pursuits create the signals of species advancement and a collective synergy.  As a society, we place a high value on running a marathon of 26.2 miles, for example.  We agree that this distance is substantial and that we will seek to replicate that distance as a benchmark for other humans to attempt and achieve to varying degrees. Kelvin Kiptum’s 2:00:35 marathon in Chicago this past Sunday is mind-blowing and a poignant example of a human advancing our species.  While still an arbitrary distance, we appreciate the parity at which all marathon competitors are measured, and we are generally satisfied that the conditions of the race give an equal opportunity to all.  The rules of the game--any game--are set up to ensure some level of equity amongst its players so that we can fairly measure performance, which in turn satisfies our need to see human progress.

Thus, we encourage humans to develop physical skills, no matter how arbitrary, to signal that our species is evolving.  Tom Brady is likely the greatest quarterback in the history of American football.  He could evade big fast guys and throw a weird ball to others before he got pummeled, and he could do it better than anyone who came before.  However, if the defensive line included an actual saber-toothed tiger, we may only know Tom Brady as an old ruddy stain on the 27-yard line.  His ability to play football at a high level really didn’t have much to do with any pure survival skill.  But we apply a high value to the discipline of human improvement and, just like Kelvin Kiptum, we hold his performance in extremely high regard, no matter how arbitrary that performance is. 

So why do we do something that takes incredible investments of time and energy for something so arbitrary?  Simply put, we contribute our physical performances (measured in competition) to demonstrate improvement in ourselves, set standards for others, and create new boundaries for humans to meet and exceed. That our implements, distances, weights, measuring tools, techniques, and game rules are arbitrary is irrelevant to what humans truly value—the effort to continually improve.

This soccer ball is generally regarded as the oldest in the world. It dates to the 16th century and is made from a pig's bladder covered with deer hide. It was found in Stirling Castle in Scotland.


In case you want to know, the general size of the soccer ball was originally derived from the size of pig bladders covered in leather. Who’s to say that if the sport had developed in areas where elephants were more prolific than pigs, we may have much bigger soccer balls that are more than six times the volume based off the size of an elephant bladder.  Yes, I looked it up. 

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