By Chloe Vialou-Clark
Image credit: Emily Anders' illustration
There is nothing quite like the elation of sporting success.
The heady sensation of victory after pushing both mind and muscles to their limits creates a euphoria that is incomparable to any other. Sport, however, is more than just the end result and exhilaration comes not only from hoisting a trophy in the air. The strong bonds that unite a team striving towards a collective result, the satisfaction of achieving personal goals and the simple pleasure of moving your body can all induce their own, unique euphoria.
After training hard for a specific goal, sporting victories bring immense satisfaction that can stay with you for years. "Even now, there are moments that bring the hairs up on the back of your neck again," says Sir Ian McGeechan, reflecting on the highlights of his illustrious rugby career as a player, and later Head Coach, of the British & Irish Lions.
As spectators, it may be easy to believe that euphoria hangs in the balance between those final, tantalising strides on the race track, or the heart-thumping minutes before your team scores the winning goal. However, these moments would be so spectacular without the hours of gruelling preparation, veritable blood, sweat and tears, and countless failures that precede those final seconds of victory. Arguably, the training towards a final success gives athletes just as much euphoria as being awarded that long-awaited medal. As successful rower and Olympic-medallist, Victoria Thornley attests, one of the most addictive aspects of rowing is its challenging technicality. "It requires years and years of searching for that elusive perfect stroke to deliver it over a 7-minute race," she said, "I get a really great feeling of satisfaction and achievement from a good day's training".
Even despite the relentless journey of preparation, some athletes don't truly experience the elation of the final result until it has really happnened. For Sir Ian, sporting euphoria came from the achievements that he had never expected. His triumph as he coached Scotland to a Gland Slam victory in the 1990 Six Nations competition exemplified this feeling perfectly. "It was against all the odds.
"I think the real euphoria comes from the expected, it's the places that you dream you can go but never truly anticipate."
Sir Ian is also famed for his other rugby victories, including playing in what is now considered one of hte most successful rugby tours in history, the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa in 1974. His team, dubbed 'The Invincibles', stormed their way to victory by winning a staggering twenty-one of twenty-two matches. He later championed a second tour as Head Coach in 1997, which was even more prestigious; as the first rugby tour following the end of South African Apartheid and also since rugby union became a professional sport.
"I think because it was just so different when we achieved it, the euphoria around it was magnified", he remembers.
These competitions still incite euphoria among the nation today. "Just yesterday, someone came up to me on the tube to shake hands and talk about the '97 Lions Tour. It's the continued impact on people that I find quite amazing," he said humbly. That fans still congratulate Sir Ian for his tremendous Lions Tour successes is hardly surprising, but this recognition of a sporting legend, now twenty-three years later, also highlights the strong impact that sport has on the wider community. Whether they are avid fans or part of the nation-wide buzz, sporting competition brings people together to watch, support and celebrate athletic victories.
The collective experience of watching sport unites different demographics and generations through their shared memories and excitement, whether in front of the living room television, in the rowdy local clubhouse or part of the swelling thousands in the stadium itself.
It is is this shared anticipation and unity of supporters that brings a whole new dimension to sporting euphoria.
This was particularly true for the 1997 Lions Tour, during which British supporters were booking last-minute flights to Cape Town on Friday, watching the match on Saturday and flying home on Sunday to be back at work the following week. The Lions Tour and other sporting competitions have brought communities together through their varied stories of trips and experiences, a euphoria that lives on even decades after the matches' conclusions.
Sporting competition amalgamates not only its peripheral audience, but unites the players, teams and squads that take part through the solidarity of working towards a common goal. Commenting on this team spirit from racing in crew boats, Victoria Thornley explained, "you race for yourself but also for each other and when it all comes together it is a very powerful feeling." Even while rowing in single sculls, she feels as though she is part of a team with her coach, who is with her every step of the way. With his universal view of rugby from the perspective of both player and coach, Sir Ian McGeechan has seen he incredible effects of rugby in uniting a team. "As a coach, the satisfaction is coming in and seeing others change because of what they've done or what they've achieved." While every team and tour are different, the principles and the values of the sport remain the same.
One of the wonderful things about sport is that it odes not have to be played on a professional , or even competitive level to give you that sense of euphoria. Even just lacing up your trainers and taking the first few paces to raise your heart rate is enough for your body to start producing endorphins. These powerful natural chemicals give us a positive attitude and a lighter heart, while a breath of fresh air improves our mental state tenfold. Exercise has also been proven to alter parts of the brain by increasing its sensitivity to serotonin, which in turn is believed to relieve feelings of depression and anxiety.
Even though when we think of sporting euphoria, montages of victory goals and televised photo-finishes spring to mind, it certainly should not be limited to those moments of success. As Sir Ian McGeechan believes,
"It's what you enjoy together. You see a smile on somebody's face because of what you've been involved in. It's a collective thing, a collective smile".