Friday, February 24, 2006

Still A Thrill: The Olympic Games ideal to reach deeper and aim for the stars inspires us and gives us hope

A version of this commentary appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune on August 24, 2004.

Citius. Altius. Fortius. Or for those of us whose Latin is a little rusty – Faster. Higher. Stronger. The motto of our modern Olympic games encompassed in three simple words.

Simple yes, but also elegant and full of meaning on multiple levels, extolling all involved (athletes, organizers, and observers) to reach deeper, aim for the stars, and give it your all. Such participation, according to the Olympic Charter [1], is done peacefully, without discrimination, and in a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.

And despite the games numerous flaws – despite the doping scandals, the huge egos (of both athletes and nations), the dangling carrot of endorsement money, the media’s over dramatization, and the threat of terrorism – despite all of this, I still experience a thrill watching the Olympics.

It’s a thrill born from my sports exploits as a youth, set in the context of the Olympic ideals. A thrill experienced by countless individuals across the globe, no matter the sport played, even if just weekend games between friends and family. And yet the origin of this shared experience goes even deeper. For sport, athleticism, and the coming together in competition form part of what it is to be human.

Roaming the planet, our hunter/gatherer ancestors honed many of the skills we associate with modern athletes: strength, endurance, speed, patience, concentration, cunning, focus, and courage. All were important for foraging, hunting, fishing, fending off predators, exploring unknown environments, and just generally surviving on a daily basis.

So important were these skills, that “downtime” was probably spent to some degree perfecting them through activities such as sport. And in fact, cave paintings from Southern Europe and Northern Africa do depict figures performing such things as running, jumping, swimming, and throwing [2, 3].

Such skills would also have well served our hunter/gatherer ancestors in war. Down through the ages, sport has become intertwined with combat and warfare – each seen in some ways as training for the other [4]. Certainly the training for sport would have helped fortify a bond between comrades essential for success in war.

Consider the prehistoric ballgame of the Americas. This ancient team sport, played from northern South America up into the American Southwest, was commonly associated with warfare. Ballplayers were warriors, and the training for each overlapped. The ballgame sometimes served as a proxy for warfare with the losers paying the ultimate price – their lives through human sacrifice.

The link between sport and war may be ancient, but so is the link between sport and peace. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors traveled about in relatively small, kin-based groups – groups that no doubt experiencing testy relationships with one another from time to time. But periodically they would have come together for such things as the exchange of resources, one of the more important being genetic – obtaining a mate outside of one’s own kin group.

Various sporting activities in addition to rituals and feasting would probably have been common at these gatherings. Competitive games would have provided one means of diffusing rivalries that may have existed between some of the kin groups – acting as a proxy for armed conflict similar to ballgame of the Americas just discussed, as well as uniting the various groups in common play.

Ideally, the ancient Olympic games of the Greeks were to be carried out under a state of truce. But as with most human endeavors, the ideal was not always met. Though it was fairly successful in protecting the participants and spectators traveling to and from the games.

Our modern Olympics carry on the goal of protecting the athletes and promoting diplomatic solutions to international conflicts. The winter and summer games provide a means of diffusing international rivalries through peaceful competition via shared sporting activities, as well as through the global viewing of those sporting events.

We get a chance to see and root for athletes as they attempt to compete Faster, reach Higher, and be Stronger. We watch as they compete in team and individual sports whose roots trace to all parts of the globe.

We root for athletes from our own nation, but also those from elsewhere – those whose personal stories we connect with. Athlete and viewer become bonded in a common experience.
Admittedly, the Olympic ideals are never fully met. Cheating is ever present, and neither Nations nor terrorist groups cease hostilities. But the dream of those ideals is never lost.

With the advent of every Olympic games we are reminded of our own individual sports experiences. And the world at large comes face to face with its common hunter/gatherer past, writ on a global scale. It comes together to share an experience of competition, and to see that others from the other side of the globe aren’t so different. It reinforces the relationship of sports with peace as opposed to war. And as long as that’s so, we still have hope.


[1] International Olympic Committee (IOC). 2003. Olympic Charter. ISBN 92-9149-001-6. August, 2003. International Olympic Committee, Lausanne. Switzerland.

[2] Pp. 18-19, H. W. Jansen. 1967. History of Art. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

[3] P. 131. A. Strenk. 1979. What Price Victory? The World of International Sports and Politics. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 445:128-140.

[4] Pp. 586-587. N. Crowther. 1999. Sports, Nationalism, and Peace in Ancient Greece. Peace Review 11(4):585-589.

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