As the sea is to the fish, so competition is to life. It is the formative medium through which life moves, reproduces, and dies. If we ask what form or bearer of life is not the result of competition, we are hard pressed to find an exception. Competition is like time: we seem unable to exist outside of it.
The article begins by identifying a set of hitherto undisclosed contradictions of meaning and value attributed to a basic structure of our existence — competition. It seeks to resolve these contradictions by showing that there are two basic forms of competition not previously distinguished: (1) the dominant model of competition in which pay-offs extrinsic to the activity itself are conferred on one party at the expense of others; and (2) the submerged, spontaneous form of competition in which no structure of extrinsic and exclusionary pay-offs is imposed on the action. Illustrating in terms of a paradigm example, ice-hockey, the analysis shows that the well-known and systematic pathologies of competitive conflict – violence, cheating, authoritarianism, sexism, drug-taking and so on — are a law-like consequence of the dominant structure of competition and not a problem of competition as such.