For the purpose of this discussion I posit that the ‘cult of the underdog’ in contemporary culture is best represented by the David vs. Goliath story. In Biblical Israel, their Philistine enemies were trouncing them in battle due to their super soldier, a literal giant named Goliath. The battle ended with David, then a 12-year old shepherd boy, defeating Goliath in single combat mostly by slinging stones onto Goliath’s head. David wins, a very improbable result given the physical difference between the combatants.
David is the ‘underdog’ here. It is an inspiring story, and feeds to this wariness held by people against those who are bigger and more powerful than they are. With regards to the story of David and Goliath, I wager that Goliath has very few authentic fans. Nobody sympathizes with him. Had he crushed David, no one would applaud. He was expected to crush an opponent at such a disadvantage. The win by David is often regarded as ‘miraculous.’
These days, the David vs. Goliath narrative plays out the most in sports. In war there there may be little presentation of this dynamic because in the major conflicts, it is usually the United States, along with NATO who are the Goliaths. Their enemies are at such a disadvantage that they resort to use the slingshots of terrorism to fight the giant. There is no incentive for Western popular culture to play up the David vs. Goliath narrative in international conflicts at all — unless perhaps it’s Tibet trampled by big China, or Chechnya trampled by big Russia. But to do so too often risks further conflict, and why indulge this when it can be had far more often and with far less consequences in sports.
Sports are dramatic because they render well into narratives. Teams and individuals are players both in the actual matches, and in the theater of the viewer’s imaginations. You have a an up and coming boxer facing the champ, has his time come? You have an aging team asking itself if it still has the reserves to stay in contention. You have players emerging from career-threatening injury, you have players on the verge of making history by breaking records. The cyclist Lance Armstrong did both, recovering from testicular cancer only to dominate the most prestigious race of his sport for the next half-decade.
Lance benefited from the public having an easy time to cast him as David due to his illness, and yet he was the Goliath of his sport every year that he played it. He got people to believe that he is always an underdog, while he was actually the biggest monster his sport has ever seen.
Sports in fiction, often rely on this phenomenon. They are successful with it. They disguise wolves as sheep in a hunting competition. The protagonists look like prey, their opponents the predators. The opposite cannot be any truer. Take the ongoing manga and anime named Giant Killing. The hook of the story is how ‘Davids’ hunt ‘Goliaths’ for sport, in the world of football. A story like this creates a setting, a set of circumstances where the protagonist has long odds of winning. However, the protagonist(s), in this case Takeshi Tatsumi, is no David. He is a manager of a football club that has poor funding, a mix of unproven and aging players, and a history of poor results. But Takeshi himself is a brilliant manager, who has had international success both as a player and manager. He is, or at least will be proven to be the best manager in professional Japanese Football.
I have little doubt of this because the presentation of his character obviously portrays him as a genius. Unorthodox, flawed, but a genius at football. The narrative would have us believe that he is David. Well, good narratives are excellent at manipulating us.
Take the 90s basketball manga (and anime) Slam Dunk. The Shohoku High School basketball team is presented to be very weak and has a history of failure. However, the chief protagonist is nothing short of a monstrosity of basketball genius (Hanamichi Sakuragi), physically and according to ability or talent. His rival (Kaede Rukawa) exceeds him in every way except perhaps potential. But, his chief rival is on the same team. Ultimately, their team is stacked at every position. In aggregate terms, there is no starting five that has a clear dominant advantage over Shohoku. Hanamichi is no David, and Shohoku High Basketball team is no David. But the narrative does its best to make you believe that they are.
Michael Lewis wrote the story of how the Oakland Athletics at the beginning of the millennium performed at the highest level in baseball, despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league (MLB of the USA). Surely here is an authentic ‘David’ against the league itself, an environment that supposedly rewards the biggest spenders. But no, the narrative is solidly about management, and Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland A’s is a true Goliath in the baseball world. It’s not just because he’s 6’4″ and superbly athletic. Armed with a revolutionary insight and system in valuing players, he ruthlessly robbed other managers blind in trading and negotiation, and they never get it until it’s too late. The players he drafts and trades for are all ‘Davids.’ They’re too unproven, or they’re too old, or they’re too slow, or too fat; almost all of them so far removed from the ideal picture of an athlete.
It just so happens that through Beane’s understanding of statistics and what is really statistically important in generating wins, the players he picked are the most efficient in generating baseball wins. Almost all of them look the part of the underdog. But as a team, they’re a collective monstrosity capable of making historic winning streaks (20 in a row at some point). They’re a Goliath because Billy Beane is a real life Goliath of the management of the game, the sport. In spirit, he is the same of Shohoku Basketball Team’s Coach Anzai, and East Tokyo United’s Takashi; Goliaths all, but so easy for the public to rally around as if they’re underdogs.
Only that in Giant Killing, there are a significant number of people who know Takashi for the giant he really is. There are those who respect him for his menace, and those who pin their hopes on him because of his stature. If these were all playing the role of spectators, I have little doubt they look forward to seeing Takashi crush his opponents. The circumstances make these people, these characters seem like underdogs. At most, they’re merely Goliaths without a spear, but instead armed with David’s sling.
Look at the most popular athletes and sporting clubs in the world. Are they popular because they are underdogs? No. They are popular because they are strong. People find out about them because of their power, and their history of success. There are narratives already written, a tradition even. The New York Yankees of Baseball, Los Angeles Lakers of Basketball, Manchester United, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona of Football; these are global brands that can afford to market world wide because their success begets the capital to propel them to bigger success.
Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, Manny Pacquiao, George St. Pierre… are these current sportsmen underdogs? Are they Davids? Does an Andy Murray feel like a Goliath should he face Roger Federer at Wimbledon? Seriously? Why do people watch these players fight? I seriously doubt that most viewers watch them to see them fall. In the end, people look for the strong, the powerful, the tall, to dominate the field — to fulfill the promise of their physical gifts and abilities. There is a comfort in knowing such gifts aren’t wasted on them. If they were, it is embittering to think “how come I am not the one to possess what qualities that push the limits of human ability?”
So why this affinity for the David vs. Goliath story? Why do we have a taste for giant killing? I think I’ll leave it up to the psychologists and anthropologists to come to a definitive answer. I simply think that there are two kinds of characters we enjoy watching: those we can relate with — the Davids — because we are small and weak as the 12 year-old David seems to be, and the Goliaths who we can’t but impossibly, irrationally, and noncommittally aspire to become.
The David vs. Goliath story is not all that it seems. If you think about it, Goliath never stood a chance, because David was never in range of, or was a good enough target for, his spear. David was free to sling shots at Goliath the whole time. It’s quite unfair if you think about it. But we like to think the little guy is actually disadvantaged, as we sometimes (or often) feel disadvantaged against life.
Personally, what I like to watch most, is a fight between Goliaths. Who do you really love to root for?
- Apparently, the cult of the underdog can be a national preference (pietel 05/07/2010)
- Why do people hate Kobe? Yahoo Answers.
- Selfishness as the root of rooting for the underdog. Yahoo Answers.
- Research shows that underdogs arouse the sense of justice in people. (LOL, dogs should never be weaker than other dogs; or, some dogs shouldn’t be stronger; IT’S NOT FAIR!). PsychCentral.
Post-Postscript: Underdogs inspire moé.
The Los Angeles Lakers just defeated the Boston Celtics in gave seven of a seven game series. This is a perfect example of the superlative quality of competition of two teams, and franchises (as between them they won more than half of all the championships in NBA history) who are the very best among all others.
Among all sports journalists there is a consensus that no other championship match-up that can aspire to how compelling this series was. I know for certain that I will remember it for the rest of my life. The celebration of the Lakers victory happens here.