BROWN: Appreciate the athletics

The Olympic Games give their audience valuable examples of perseverance and teamwork

In a recent editorial for this paper, George Knaysi argued that the Olympics should be scrapped because they aren’t accomplishing anything of economic or cultural value. I’m not going to disagree with him that the Olympics are usually not a net positive financially for the host country; I will disagree with his implicit assertion that financial profit for the host country is a goal of the games. And I will strongly disagree with his assertion that the cultural impact of the games comes exclusively from athletes “relentlessly pursuing glory for themselves and ‘the nation’, ” or even from admiration for the “discipline, dedication and neuromuscular artistry” of the athletes. This is a fundamentally misguided view of the value of athletics in general, which can be hugely beneficial to every member of a society. The Olympics are important on a political level, but even more so on a cultural one in their epitomization of the quest for excellence.

As stated above, hosting the games is not often an economic boon. It can be expensive both in the short and long term, as Knaysi points out through several examples. But countries do not host the games to make money directly. They host the games to enhance their visibility on a world stage, to cement their legitimacy as a player in global politics and to demonstrate their capability to organize such a massive event. All of these goals are difficult to evaluate in dollars and cents, yet are still central to a country’s internal politics through their enhancement of nationalist identity, and international politics through their enhancement of global influence. The massive worldwide audience of the games allows the host country to send important messages to the global community about its economy, infrastructure, workforce, and technology. And the impact of those messages can fundamentally alter perceptions about a country’s value. Look no further than how China used the Beijing Games in 2008 to demonstrate their status as a centerpiece of the global economy. Their display at the opening ceremonies alone skyrocketed global awareness of China as a leader in technological, architectural and artistic achievement. It also undoubtedly stoked national pride and unity within China. I’m sure China prizes those gains far more than the money the ceremony cost.

Knaysi’s view of the importance of sport is even more shortsighted. He chooses to look only at the surface significance of athletics — its “glory”— and not at the wealth of lessons it teaches those who participate. What athletics offers is training for everyday life, through the development of skill, teamwork, toughness, and any other number of things. In what job do you not need to apply yourself to learning a certain skill set, or work effectively with a team to accomplish a common goal? In what career will you not have to push through hard times and setbacks to reach greater rewards down the road? Learning the value of these pursuits through sport prepares young people for non-athletic careers as effectively as any classroom education. And for many who are less naturally suited to scholarship, it is a way to avoid being left behind by those who are. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of academics, or of other alternatives like the arts, but I am trying to point out the inherent value of athletic pursuits to all people. Knaysi deplores a society that celebrates athletes over “scientists, teachers, or activists…” I think athletics — at their best — exemplify the traits that successful people have in common. And the Olympics are indeed athletics at their best.

Olympic athletes are the epitome of sacrifice. With a few exceptions, they make very little money from their sport and are often forced to work on top of their rigorous training schedules — sometimes in unglamorous positions such as janitors or construction workers. They give up simple pleasures we take for granted to push themselves to the pinnacle of human achievement in their field. They are an example to athletes and non-athletes alike, to people who pursue excellence in any field, of the ability of disciplined and sustained effort to accomplish extraordinary things in the face of adversity. The cultural value of the Olympics is found not just in how the games promote participation in and education through athletics, but in how they inspire all of us to dedicate ourselves to whatever struggle we are engaged in. And that is not something we should toss aside.

Forrest Brown is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

Published March 6, 2014 in Opinion

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