The Olympics Is Everything That Makes Us Bad

Michael PhelpsAfter the Olympics were over, some commentator came on the television screen and did this big feel-good speech about what the world had just watched was a super-duper example of humanity at its best. This was all the best athletes of the world coming together to compete. It showed people trying to do their best and all getting along. Oh joy!

I watched almost none of the Olympics largely because I already knew what this guy would go on to say was the absolute opposite of reality. The Olympics demonstrate the worst of what we are and what make us, as a species incredibly dangerous.

This is not going to be an exhaustive discussion of the problems with the Olympics. For that, you would need a book. But really, this isn’t complicated: the Olympics are a nationalistic display featuring competitions meant to show which country is “best.” You would think that after the 1936 Nazi Olympic Games, people would have given up on the idea that the whole spectacle was above politics or a representation of what is best in humanity. But they don’t. The Olympics start with each country marching into the stadium wearing their colors and waving their flags. Could there be anything more nationalistic?

Sure, they aren’t carrying guns and shooting each other. But that’s just because the Olympics are like Christmas dinner: everyone is on their best behavior. The opening ceremonies are a perfect display of what leads to war.

There Is No Real Individualism in the Olympics

And they show that the games have nothing to do with the individuals. If you know the name of an Olympic athlete, it is almost certain that the athlete is from your country. And all through the event, we are kept abreast of the “medal totals.” How many gold, silver, and bronze medals were won by each country. Sure, we got a running total of Michael Phelps’ metals in 2008, but I assure you, Russian television wasn’t doing the same thing.

But yes, a big deal will be made of individuals who win a lot of metals. Yes, if you are an American, you know who Michael Phelps is. But have you ever heard of Larisa Latynina? Most likely if you lived in the Soviet Union or come from the Ukraine, you know who she is. She’s the woman with the most Olympic medals, in a sport I consider much harder: gymnastics. Swimming is probably the easiest sport to dominate in metals because it’s there is so much of the same thing. You have 100 m freestyle, the 200 m freestyle, the 400 m freestyle. And that’s to say nothing of the corresponding relay races.

No one will ever win metals in both the 100 m dash and the marathon. They are completely different. They even require completely different body types to excel at. And why are there so many dull-as-dishwater swimming events? Because the US has a huge amount of power on the Olympic committee and the US dominates in swimming.

What’s more, the differences between the athletes are generally pathetically small. In 2008, Phelps won the 100 m butterfly by 0.01 seconds. A change in lane position could have given Phelps the silver metal in the 100 m butterfly. And in 2016, he lost by a quarter of a second and shared silver with two other men. Personally, I don’t see how people can get excited by a sport where they can’t even tell who won.

I’m not saying any of this to put down Phelps. He’s an amazing athlete — just like all the other Olympic athletes and hundreds of thousands of others who never make it to the Olympics. But my point is that we make a big deal of him because he’s our boy. In as much as there is individualism in the Olympics, it is all done in the name of nationalism. People who get excited by Michael Phelps are no different than the idiot frat boys who were chanting “We’re Number One!” after we killed Osama bin Laden.

Competing Against Others Is Bad

One of the worst characteristics of humans is their desire to “beat” others. I’ve never had that compunction, yet in my way, I’m very competitive. But I compete with myself. I love learning new things — mastering them. But being better at something than someone else just isn’t interesting to me. Yet a lot of people live for it. And it turns out these people are overwhelmingly conservative politically.[1] And it is no surprise why. Beating the next best person by a hundredth of a second in the 100 m butterfly is really no different than wanting your country to have the most powerful military and wanting to be able to tell all the other countries how they should live.

When I played chess, I was always amazed at how much winning mattered to other people. It was a game. I really didn’t care. All I cared about was improving. As as a result, although I lost a lot of games, I improved most of the people I played against didn’t. I watched as players went from a point where I could never beat them to a point where I so dominated them that they weren’t worth playing. And they never got it because winning was all that mattered to them.

Life Is About Self Improvement

Winning is a game for kids. Adults should work on improving as a person. If you try to improve yourself, you are lucky because it will make you happy (well, happier). If everyone were like that, we would have a better world than the one we have now where everyone is encouraged to be “the best.” As it is, outside of measured sports (eg, running and jumping) there really is no “best.” After you get past a certain level on the violin, it is a matter of taste. And in that case, it’s a very small number of people who can tell the difference between an excellent college violinist and Itzhak Perlman.[2]

If people aren’t primarily involved in improving themselves (in all ways, including humility — something I need to work on more), you are simply left with nothing important. There is nothing that matters as much as the things you choose to spend your time on. Winning a gold metal really is pointless; but if you love swimming, getting to that level of ability is.

Above All, the Olympics Doesn’t Matter to the World

The Olympics are an opportunity for countries to show off. This is why they fight on the Olympic committee as to just which sports will be included. This makes the games all the more nationalistic. But if people like them, fine. But never mistake the Olympics for a gauge of which country is best. The best countries are the ones that see their people taken care off. It’s fine if people are great athletes. But they aren’t what makes us great. The Olympics aren’t important and are probably bad for us.

Afterword: Alfie Kohn on Education and Competition

This is a great lecture by Alfie Kohn. (By the way, what he does at the beginning — having people break up into small groups to solve a problem is how I taught physics. Imagine if your math teachers had done that with your classes.) He talks about how turning any activity into a competition makes the individual results worse. He’s talking primarily about education, but it fits so well with what I talked about in this article that I had to share. It’s possible that the best runners would be faster if they only ever ran alone for the purpose of their own improvement.

He also talks about a way of changing musical chairs so it isn’t competitive and ends up being much more fun for all involved.

People who have read me for a long time know that I greatly admire Kohn. And if you extrapolate his work to economics, you also see that capitalism really is a failure and how we can move on to something better.

[1] Phelps has never made a political statement so far as I know. I suspect he is kind of liberalish but mostly non-political. The reason I think he tilts a bit left is because he admits that he got lucky and it isn’t all his personal will and hard work that made him so successful. (Although really, I’d love to sit down and talk to him about the fact that there are way too many swimming events in the Olympics.)

[2] I might pick the college student anyway. I’ve always found Itzhak Perlman too flashy. I wish he would stick more closely to the music as written. But then, I’m the guy who doesn’t really like Romantic Period music. And I’m not questioning that Perlman is an annoyingly great player. I would still jump at the opportunity to hear him live.

One reply

  1. James Fillmore says:

    My old job, I walked about 3/4 mile between the bus stop & work. There was this guy who sat on his front porch at night, listening to baseball games on the radio, and he’d wave “hi.”

    Via his skin color and accent, he was clearly not from America originally, so I was curious; why baseball? It’s not exactly a worldwide sport the way soccer is.

    Turned out, he was from Sierra Leone, which has suffered all kinds of unimaginable shit, and he liked baseball for the sound. Didn’t remotely care who beat whom out for the third base job in spring training.

    No, just the sound. That radio baseball sound. “Well, Bob, it’s 11-2 in the third, and Pete McDougal is up to bat.” “‘David, that reminds me of Pete “Pimples” Gerkenov, who once hit a home run blindfolded during a rainstorm in 1974…”

    It’s the sound of putting competition in its place; as a humorous, peaceful amusement, because the lengths some people will go to to beat each other in arbitrary contests is kinda amusing.

    It’s the sound of what America can be, when it works. Not a hellscape of all against all. A place where people wave “hi.”

    And medal count, or any other fetshization of token patriotism, isn’t remotely how such a community gets built.

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