October 29, 2004

Welcome, Sports Fans

There's an article by Jasper Griffin in the Oct 21st issue of the New York Review of Books called "The Myth of the Olympics," an interesting but somewhat meandering journey through some of the history of the ancient Olympics Games. In case you're not familiar with the NYRB, the article is a book review / literary criticism mixed with an opportunity for the author to show off his own viewpoints and knowledge. In this case the article covers five different books.

If you are an electronic subscriber, you can read the article here, or you can purchase the single article for $4 USD. I recommend picking up the full issue at your local newsagent or library; you'll get a lot more interesting reading on current events as a bonus.

The article touches on a wide range of interesting subjects, including the rewards that awaited the winners of the ancient games, the penalties that were applied to cheaters, and the existence of a parallel but secretive competition for women.

There is a quote from the end of the review that I had not seen before. Here is an excerpt from the last paragraph of the article:

There are those, said Plato, who go to the Olympics to compete; there are those who go to watch; and there are those who go to buy and sell things. Of the three, he characteristically adds, the noblest are those who go to watch, for their activity is closest to pure contemplation, the highest activity of the human mind. It is a striking thought that in our own time many would vote to give the most honored place to the competitors ..., while others would prefer to single out the entrepeneurs who promote economic progress ... but few or none would vote for the observer, the mere spectator ... The sports fan, so patronized by the contemporary highbrow, can console himself that he has the approval of the king of philosophers.

Elsewhere I find part of this quote attributed to Aristotle, but the winner (if Google hits count as votes) appears to be Pythagoras. Any way you look at it, we thinking sports fans have some very prestigious philosophical forefathers! Here is (allegedly) a full quote (source), which is actually quite a bit deeper than Griffin describes:

Life is like a gathering at the Olympic festival, to which, having set forth from different lives and backgrounds, people flock for three motives. To compete for the glory of the crown, to buy and sell or as spectators. So in life, some enter the services of fame and others of money, but the best choice is that of these few who spend their time in the contemplation of nature, and as lovers of wisdom.

I should point out that almost nothing survives of Pythagoras' writings, so the veracity of the exact wording has to be taken with a grain of salt or two.

Plato himself was apparently an athlete as well as a scholar. I'll bet you didn't know that there is a Hall of Fame that counts Plato and former POTUS Gerald Ford among its members. If that Hall is looking for their next "ancient inductee," I could suggest Milon of Kroton, who was a pupil of Pythagoras and six times Olympic wrestling champion. Incidentally, I note that Plato and Pindar, unlike James Naismith and Arthur Ashe, are not listed as a posthumous inductees!

A Google search for "Plato Olympics" also turned up this article. If this wasn't such a fine, fine university I would accuse them of dumbing down their academic curriculum for jocks. Interesting to hear that Robert Weir is still shaping athletic careers at Stanford. He wasn't very helpful to mine.

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