The Olympics can be uplifting, entertaining, and distracting. But what, exactly, is the point of watching a group of people get together to compete over running quickly or lifting big weights? When you consider that Yursa Mardiini, an Olympic swimmer on the refugee team who last August had to swim for her life through the Mediterranean, competing for shiny gold medals can seem a little, well, futile.
But Heather Reid, philosophy professor at Morningside College who’s written several books on the philosophy of sport, says that while sport may not have an intrinsic meaning, “we humans create it and we give meaning to it.”
The first Olympic games were in Ancient Greece and then, as now, they were a way of bringing people together. Greece at the time was a collection of independent nations. Competing teams met in Olympia, which was thought to be ruled by the gods and so neutral territory.
“They could come together there and get over their differences, focus on their commonality, and break down the boundaries not just between themselves, but also between gods and humans, past and present,” says Reid. Spectators watching a runner might have thought of Achilles or even believe Achilles had appeared. “You felt this unity with the other people there who are also inspired by Achilles, but also a kinship with your glorious past,” adds Reid.
Today, this sense of unity works for the same reason it always did, she says, namely “sport itself.” The structure of sport, where everyone begins at the same starting line and abides by the same rules, means that competitors from every country become equal.
“There’s something about this collective experience of striving together, which is what the word competito in Latin means, to strive together,” says Reid. “It’s very hard to watch the Olympic Games and not be inspired by what humans are capable of and their ability to overcome their political differences.”
Ancient philosophers from this era were well attuned to the benefits of sport. Drew Hyland, philosophy professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, points out the ancient Greeks competed at the Apollo temple in Delphi, where the forecourt was inscribed with the slogans “know thyself,” and “nothing in excess.” This is closely intertwined with Socrates’ notions of self-knowledge, which was focused on knowing what you don’t know. “If you’re an athlete and you’re thoughtful at all about what you’re doing, you’re constantly learning about yourself in exactly the sense Socrates was talking about, namely coming up against your limits,” says Hyland.
Meanwhile, in his essay “On the meaning of sport,” James Schall, professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, notes that Aristotle believed, “that play or sport is the closest thing most human beings come to contemplation, to the highest of human activities.”
Watching sports takes us out of ourselves, adds Schall via email. “We are not focused on ourselves but on the event going on before us. It grips us. It is worth watching for its own drama. It was this experience that sports gave us. The experience of something for its own sake,” he says.
The Greeks believed in seeing the limits and perfection of the human body—though, crucially, the performance of the body could not be distinguished from the soul. “Basically, the Olympics were tests of the excellence and beauty of man as a bodily being filled with a soul. Without a spirit animating a person, he will not win, nor do the long-run work, or the immediate struggle to win against those who are themselves excellent,” adds Schall.
The idea of beauty in sports is still apparent today. Hyland points out that we use the vocabulary of aesthetics, discussing grace and “beautiful” plays, and that sports can be appreciated as an aesthetic creation.
In fact, he says, some of the de-emphasis on the value of sport since Ancient Greece came with Christian philosophy, which upholds the immortal soul and denigrates the body. ““Largely because of that [Christian] dominance in our culture, sports tended to not be emphasized as serious by much of philosophy from medieval times on. Until, really, the 20th century,” he adds.
But the modern Olympics are explicitly inspired by those in Ancient Greece, And the official Olympic Charter is a lofty philosophical statement:
“Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
“In theory,” says Reid, ”everything the Games does is supposed to reflect that philosophy.”