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opinion

In order to fill the space where the Kentucky Derby should have been, NBC broadcast an impostor Derby featuring animations of past winners racing each other on May 2, 2020.The Associated Press

Like most Canadian arguments, this one was started by The Log Driver’s Waltz.

Does the log driver go “twirling” or “birling” down and down white water?

Having seen this cartoon spot about 6 1/2 million times as a kid, I was very convinced it was twirling. Twirling scans.

Of course, I was completely wrong. All this time, I’ve been living a lie.

This led us to a deep dive into birling (i.e. competitive logrolling), which in turn became a profitable half-hour spent watching high-level birling on YouTube, which in turn became a further argument about whether forward birling or backward birling is the best birling technique.

Which in turn proves that when there is nothing to watch, some people will watch anything.

Over the past eight weeks, we’ve watched a lot of things. A friend recently told me that he and his wife have started watching Family Feud every night. It’s their new thing.

“I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to admit that to me,” I said, taking virtual hold of his hands. “Now never tell anyone else.”

I’ve watched Taiwanese baseball and Belarusian soccer. I’ve watched Marbula One (the marble version of Formula 1) and professional tag (which is better than it sounds). I have watched a lot of chess. Like, a lot.

But I don’t think I’ve watched anything as strange and compelling as this weekend’s virtual Kentucky Derby.

The Derby was supposed to go off on Saturday. It’s been postponed until September. In order to fill the space where the Derby should have been, NBC broadcast an impostor Derby featuring animations of past winners racing each other.

On its face, this idea should not have worked.

One strains to imagine how it was brought up. What sort of peyote-based Zoom meeting resulted in someone saying, “Couldn’t we just pretend” and everyone else agreeing that was the sensible thing?

Sports are pretend-proof. It’s fun to argue that Team X from the 1970s was better than Team Y from the 1990s, but that’s as far as it goes.

Reality is sports’ entire raison d’être – that you don’t know until they’ve played the game. If I wanted to pretend sports, I’d be a pretend PGA golfer making millions of actual dollars.

Weirdly, this Derby had pretensions to reality. The organizers handicapped the race. They used historical stats and algorithms to program the participating horses.

At the virtual Kentucky Derby, Secretariat and Ron Turcotte ride again, and win

“Algorithims” have become to the 21st century what ‘sanctified by the Holy Mother Church’ was to the 15th:

“This sounds dumb.”

“It’s based on algorithims.” “Dear Lord, forgive me for doubting you.”

Beyond that, it appears that animation is one of those industries that doesn’t work quite so well when the workers are trapped in their homes. Though not bad, the virtual Derby did not feature the ‘so real I couldn’t tell the difference’ levels of craftsmanship we’ve got used to.

They gave it a gimmicky name – Triple Crown Showdown. They laid an actual call on top of pumped-in crowd noise. Essentially, this was adults watching strangers play a video game for no stakes.

And yet, it was utterly compelling.

At the start, I didn’t know anything about what was happening and did not really care. Halfway through, I had strong thoughts about the wisdom of Seattle Slew going out early and those thoughts were, “No.” By the end, my hand had assumed control of my body and was moving up and down in the air.

Secretariat won, of course.

(Before the flim-flam race was raced, jockey Ron Turcotte told The Globe and Mail’s Marty Klinkenberg, “Anybody who picks against Secretariat doesn’t know anything about horses.”)

That would be me. I don’t know anything about horses. But I was so ginned up afterward that I insisted we watch Seabiscuit. Again.

This is a film in which Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges say things nobody in the history of humanity has said. Things like, “Everybody thinks we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess, in a way, we kinda fixed each other, too.”

That word sandwich is all butter and no bread. But because Seabiscuit is based on actual events, it is still more “real” than what we saw on Saturday.

Why then does the virtual Derby work?

For the same reason people like Rocky so much. We have a compelling need to vicariously participate in the competition of others.

Winning and losing in real life has consequences. All of us are constantly in the midst of this sort of competition – at work, at home, in comparison to our peers and neighbours. It’s a lot less fun than the movies make it seem.

But vicarious competition is pure sweetness. Other people do it for your benefit. You get to experience the thrill of the hunt, without the risk of catching an arrow in the head.

This need is so hard-wired that we apply it to all our cultural institutions. I believe this, rather than any innate sense of fairness or community, is the reason democracy has lasted.

What is democracy but a once-every-four-or-five-years competition between competing teams? It has odds, stakes, jostling at the end, winners, losers, comeback stories and legends of the game.

Every other political system is a fixed race featuring one participant staggering toward a finish line he doesn’t reach until he dies or one of his friends kills him. Boring.

Sports is the most effective delivery vehicle to satisfy this need. It’s the bleed valve of social democracy, allowing us to compete among each other in ways that are harmless and create a sense of belonging. Every healthy society puts sports near its centre.

So in lieu of the real thing, fake will do. Because it’s not the results that matter, but rather the ritual of caring about the race.