Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In Defense of the Olympics

The pagans weren't wrong about everything

I feel the chivalrous urge to stick up for the Olympics at a time when it seems to me that the Olympics are getting slammed from all sides - including the Catholic side.

A few days ago, John Paul Meenan wrote an anti-Olympics piece called, "The Neo-Pagan Limits of the Olympics." It's written in that sort of affected curmudgeonly style that helps to give an author cover. If anyone challenges the arguments, the fact that the piece is a bit of a rant means that any challenge can be deflected - the author was simply engaging in hyperbole for comic effect, etc.

That's not a criticism per se. Rather it's an admission that I might be taking Meenan's piece  a bit more seriously than it was intended.

I'm defining "high-Cath" as describing someone who thinks the Faith is at least partly about dissing things that are liked by ordinary people. While Catholicism should never go along with the majority for the sake of it, the opposite attitude is equally stupid. As I use it, the term has nothing to do with the Traditional Latin Mass or preferring High Mass to Low Mass, etc.

And I'm not alleging that Meehan is a high-Cath. I am claiming that in this piece at least, he writes in the style of one. And as you will see, I find that annoying.

Here's the full piece, with my annotations in red. I've numbered what I take to be Meenan's distinct anti-Olympics arguments. There are many of them.

As always, if you disagree with anything I say or my snarky tone, feel free to rip into me in the comments. I can take it. I've been working out.
The much-awaited Olympics is now upon us in Rio, a city in a country in a continent mired in unmanageable debt and corruption. Surrounded by poverty-stricken favelas, the city has poured billions into Olympic venues, security, advertisement, all to watch a few thousand overhyped young athletes strive to excel at their chosen sport. 
This sets the sort of Olympics-as-decadent-dystopian-nightmare tone. Poverty-stricken favelas is a redundancy, by the way. I get the fact that you need to modify it, otherwise readers might think the city was surrounded by appetizers, but another adjective might have been preferable. 
1. The Olympics often take place in corrupt countries. So does pretty much everything these days. This is not the fault of the Olympics. 
2. Olympians are overhyped. I disagree. Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer to have ever lived. That's pretty cool. I do not think he has been overhyped. On the other end of the scale, I do not think, say, the archers or the shooters or the rowers are overhyped. For better or worse, almost no one even knows who they are. 
Don’t get me wrong: I do not harbour any dislike, to say nothing of hatred, for athletics. In fact, I have enjoyed many pleasant hours playing various kinds of games at a recreational level, even though, partly due to the circumstances of my life, I mostly enjoy solitary physical activities, cycling, kayaking and hiking. Perhaps I find them more conducive to prayer and reflection  or perhaps it is connected in some subconscious way to the memory that no one wanted to pick me for a team as a wee lad. You know, past traumas and all that. 
This establishes the high-Cath cred of the author - contemplative and solitary nature sports are his thing - as well as adding a bit of self-deprecatory Englishness - wee lad, all that. But that there is no dislike for athletics in the author's harbor is disingenuous, as we shall see. 
So allow me to clarify that I find it very difficult to care about professional sports which have, by and large, become a bloated, idolatrous entity, blown vastly out of proportion to their importance to our culture. As the well-worn analogy goes, sports arenas are our new cathedrals, and the players our new panoply of saints, to whom we offer devotion and praise. Grown men quite literally weep and gnash their teeth when their team seems to be on the verge of losing, or winning; people riot in the streets regardless of the outcome. Much of our lives revolves around sports, and even those who are not ‘fans’ (short, of course, for ‘fanatics’) are caught up in the hype of the big events, the current Olympics, the World Cup, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, and so on. 
3. Professional sports have become somewhat idolatrous. The author might be on to something here, but where one draws the line between innocent non-pretentious fun and idolatry is often a question best left to snobs. However, I do not think the general argument applies so much to the Olympics. The Olympics only happen once every four years. You don't see people rioting for Michael Phelps, etc.   
I have never been one for this charade, not least for the reason that I would rather ride a bike than watch another man do so. 
4. Doing is better than watching. I've run eleven marathons. Take it from me, watching them is a lot more fun than running them. 
Of course, watching sports does give one a sense of vicarious enjoyment, especially if one participates in the sport in question. Seeing the cyclists of the Tour de France pedaling through the glorious scenery of the Pyrenees, one can imagine oneself doing the same thing, perhaps a tad slower, of course, on a less expensive bike, and with a bit more clothing. 
More high-Cath cred stuff - pedaling through the glorious scenery of the Pyrenees. It's getting annoying now. 
Yet what have sports become? We may judge the value with which we hold a thing by how much money and time we are willing to spend on it, and we as a culture spend far too much of these valuable entities on this ultimately rather utilitarian activity. Parents devote their entire weekends driving their children, boys and now girls, from game to game, tournament to tournament. Sunday Mass? Prayer? Cultural activities? Reading? Music? Family time? Do most modern families even consider such a scale of priorities? 
5. Recreational sports absorb too much time in the lives of our families. To the extent that this is true in some families, I would say that it's part of the more general problem of kids' lives often being too busy - perhaps to build their college resumes or whatever. That's not the fault of the Olympics. And notice how the author goes from saying that doing is better than watching to condemning too much doing. 
At the professional level, sports have become a money-driven machine, with their millionaire players selling their set of skills to the highest bidder amongst the billionaire owners. Team loyalty? So long as they pay me enough; and if ‘my team’ does not perform well, I can be traded before the playoffs. Geographical loyalty, and rooting for the ‘home team’? How many players are actually from, or care a fig for, the town or city whose name the team adopts, or even from a contiguous region or country, for which they play? How many actually even live there? 
6. In many professional sports, money rules. There is no home-town loyalty anymore. This has little to do with the Olympics. The Bahrain team is the exception that proves the rule. 
The Olympics brings this charade to its apogee, or nadir as the case may be, with untold billions now thrown into its gaping, insatiable maw (at the last venue, the impoverished Russians will be paying off the $15 billion tag for Sochi perhaps until judgement day, and Rio will be no different. Montreal just finished paying off its own debt from the more-sober era of the 1976 Olympics a few years ago). 
7. Olympic hostings are often money pits. Governments waste money. This is not a new insight. And 30-year loans are 30-year loans. I can testify to that. 
We watch the desperate athletes, after spending their entire lives training, trying to shave quite literally a thousandths of a second off the last recorded time, a result dependent upon so many other factors (wind, a cold virus, altitude, cloud cover, climate change, you name it) that ‘chance’ has about as large a role as ‘effort’. Their whole lives revolve around their body and its training until, in their mid-twenties, it is worn out, and they are often left injured, disillusioned and depressed as they drift into sedentary middle-age. I wonder especially of the female athletes, delaying marriage and family, as they pummel and morph their bodies into lean, muscular male-like physiques, all for the sake of a gold bauble, or something far less. 
This paragraph is so over-the-top I don't know where to start. 
8. Olympic athletes train their entire lives for competitions that will ultimately be resolved by arbitrary things out of control of the athletes. This is just out and out false. Ask Michael Phelps. 
9. Olympic athletes are often left "injured, disillusioned and depressed as they drift into sedentary middle-age." That's silly. First of all, there's no evidence that this is any kind of a thing. In the amateur era Olympic athletes went on to become doctors, coaches, insurance salesmen or whatever else their talents and reputation determined for them. It's the same in the professional era except now many of them go into their post-competitive lives with a fat bank account. And as far as drifting into sedentary middle-age is concerned, whatever happened to pedaling, kayaking and hiking through glorious scenery?    
10. Female Olympic athletes delay marriage and family. Most women ad men delay marriage and family these days. And as a Catholic, I disapprove. But there's no evidence this happens more to Olympic athletes than anyone else. Many female athletes are done with their careers fairly early, age-wise - earlier than they would have finished with, say, grad-school. Other female competitors have had multiple children during the course of their careers. Indeed, there are a perhaps surprising number of female champions who have done this. Obviously, if you've made or are making money, it's easier to raise a family and train. But maybe that's dirty.
Also, notice how the claim went from they're all professionals (many of them millionaires) who make too much money to the ignorant idiots are ruining their bodies "all for the sake of a gold bauble, or something far less." 
I hate it when people contradict themselves. 
Here is something to ponder: No matter how much humans train, some animal will always beat them handily. The world record holder for the 100 metre dash, Usain Bolt, ran it in 9.58 seconds. Compare the fastest human with Sarah the 11 year old cheetah, well into late-middle age for the large cat, who lies around most of the day, and who can run the same distance easily in 5.95 seconds. No one will ever out-wrestle a chimpanzee, even if defanged and declawed, for they have four times the strength of an adult male, nor out bench-press a gorilla, who could probably lift a humvee with ease and can bend tempered steel; and who will ever out-swim a dolphin, which can clock speeds of 25 miles per hour (Michael Phelps, the Olympic prodigy whose feats will likely never be repeated, swims at his best 6 miles per hour). And none of these animals ‘train’ in our sense of the word. They’re just born that way. 
11. Animals are better at sports. Wake me when the pigeons play the raccoons in water polo. 
Higher, faster, stronger? Scientists estimate that we are perhaps shaving off 1/100 of a second on records each Olympics, and one physiologist claims the fastest any human can ever possibly run the 100 metres is 9.44 seconds, and the same asymptotic limits apply to most other timed sports. And, as we have witnessed of late, many of these records are tainted by doping and other nefarious activities. 
12. Olympic records only fall by teeny-tiny amounts. Tell that to Olympian Alma Ayana, who just broke the Women's 10,000 meter record by 14 seconds. That's 1,400 times greater than 1/100 of a second. I figured that out in my head while kayaking. 
13. We're now at the point where we're coming up against the limits of human ability. No, we're not. See above. 
In any case, the Olympics aren't about setting records. They're about beating people from other countries and winning baubles. 
14. Records are often tainted by drugs and such. See, that's why we're higher than the animals. 
Whatever ‘excellence’ the Olympians are striving after, it is not specifically human excellence. 
15. ? I have no idea what this means. In any case, I thought, according to the author, we could never be as good as animals anyway. 
There was a reason why the Olympics were, until recently, limited to amateurs, and forbidden to professionals. The originators of the Olympic ideal thought it unseemly and inhuman to devote one’s whole life and existence to ‘sport’, which should be a leisurely activity, done on the side. After all, there are many other higher, specifically human pastimes and virtues, music, art, science, literature, contemplation, which we do not share with animals, and which are far more fitting to cultivate. That was part of the sub-plot of the great 1981 Olympic film Chariots of Fire: Beware of making sports professional and all-consuming, for we risk a loss of a significant part of our humanity. 
I'm going to give non-flippant replies to the next few, because the issues are important. 
16. Sports are marginal anyway. Above, the author said he had nothing against athletics. Now he's dissing them as being obviously lower than, say, music or art. I simply disagree, and I do so as a Catholic. Indeed, one of the things that differentiates the Catholic view of man from some other options is that Catholic philosophy claims that we're more than disembodied souls merely designed for contemplation or whatever. In a thousand years, most of our cultural achievements (at least the physical ones) will be dust. And Michael Phelps will still be one of the greatest swimmers who ever lived. 
17. "Beware of making sports professional and all-consuming - see Chariots of Fire." In Chariots of Fire, one of the English athletes trains by trying to clear champagne glasses placed on the hurdles by his butler. No doubt that's what high-Cath sports should really be about. Also in that film, the great Christian runner Eric Liddell refused to compete on a Sunday. So, he competed instead in an event that he didn't train for and wasn't supposed to be very good at. He won a surprise victory - one of the greatest Olympian upsets ever recorded. That was a victory for Liddell and God. And it was a great moment in Olympic history. That occurrence is not a strike against the Olympics. It's an argument for them.         
The Church has always warned against the danger of such a ‘cult of the body’, a “neo-pagan notion” leading one “to sacrifice everything for (the body’s) sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports” (cf., CCC, #2289). Along with this idolization of the body goes a perverse hedonism, as we see in the spike in Tinder usage in the Olympic village, a smartphone app which allows its users to ‘hook up’ with those whom one finds immediately attractive, by swiping their photo. To ‘facilitate’ this fornicatory process, 450,000 condoms were handed out to the athletes. Given there are about 11,000 competitors, that’s about 41 condoms per person, or 82 per couple, which is saying something for a two week event. 
18. The Olympics promotes a "cult of the body," which can lead to a perverse hedonism among athletes. I'm tempted to make a joke about this but I won't. Sin isn't funny. Okay, other people's sins can be funny. But still. Many contemporary athletes take advantage of the sexual "hook-up" culture. I can't argue with this. But don't blame the Olympics - blame YouCat. And that was only a half-joke.  

I would have thought sexual incontinence would decrease one’s athletic performance, draining one’s focus, attention and determination (as you may recall from the first Rocky film, and, more historically, Roman legionaries). 
Most Olympic athletes would agree that "partying" in any form - whether it includes "hook ups," drinking or just staying up late - is not a good idea before an upcoming event. But notice how the author goes from claiming that many athletes have spent the major portion of their lives in an unhealthy obsession with competing at the Olympics, to assuming that once they arrive there, they then decide to throw all of it away for transitory kicks. Athletes that mess around, do so after their events are over. Not that I'm justifying it. And not that I have any experience with it. After my marathons I would always unwind by taking solitary walks through glorious scenery.       
Of course, I hope and presume most athletes do develop other skills and virtues besides sports and ‘hooking up’, particularly virtues of the mind and soul, to which the body is most definitely subordinate, so they can thrive in terms of what it really means to be human, beyond their brief, all-too-short athletic careers, over almost before they begin. 
Oh, man. The author has nothing against sport but now he's bundling it with screwing around, literally. And athletic careers are just as brief and meaningless as that drunken date with the Brazilian, I guess, or whatever. That's a slander against every Olympian who ever lived.  
We must always bring ourselves back to reality and realize with the full focus of our intellect that most sports are simply a bunch of guys, and now girls, running, swimming, fighting, or throwing, hitting and chasing a piece of rubber around various kinds of surfaces, which animals (and now robots) can do far better. Such activities are not the point of life, at least of human life. 
Now we're upping the ante - not only are animals better at sports; robots are too. Which of course is insane. By the way, is this still even a Catholic argument? 
Yet much of our time, our energy, our focus, are consumed by them, and many men quite religiously spend their entire weekends and time off watching younger, fitter men (and women) do things they only wish they could do. Harmless fun, to an extent, I suppose; a vicarious form of warfare sublimating our aggression, perhaps; a way to perfect one’s body, yes, but only if one participates in ‘real life’, getting out of Plato’s illusory cave of televised entertainment, into the real world where we can live and move and have our being. It is all a matter of perspective, and we in our artificial modern age have sadly put the last things first, and first things last. 
With the many positive aspects of sports, let us always bring things back to such a real perspective, and what it truly means to be human.
And so it ends, as these sorts of arguments always do, with Plato. I rest my case.
Plato was a kayaker. 
Some of you are aware that Pope Pius X gave his perhaps surprising imprimatur to sports in general and the 1908 Olympics in particular at a time when many Catholics considered the revived Olympics of the Ancient Greeks to be "neo-pagan." We cannot know what that rough pontiff might have thought of the 21st century games, but I do know this: Pius X was a saint, not a snob. While he may have been critical of the Catholic masses for things that Popes should be critical about - sinning, etc. - he would never have engaged in the sort of high-Cath posturing seen in the above piece.

The pagans weren't wrong about everything, though Plato was.

God bless the Olympics.


  1. As with any human endeavor the Olympics are a mixed bag. But it sure warmed the cockles of my heart to see that magnificent creation, Usain Bolt, drop to his knees, Miraculous Medal around his neck, give glory to God and His Mother as he won the 100 meter for a third time. God Bless the Olympics and all Olympians.

    1. Yeah, I agree. I used to think he was just arrogant. But there's much more to him than that...

  2. To the extent that his concerns actually have some legitimacy, they're far better focused on the major pro sports (in both the US and abroad), where the worst pathologies manifest themselves so obviously, and where they do often amount to what seems to be idolatry.

    Otherwise, he does come across as "someone who thinks the Faith is at least partly about dissing things that are liked by ordinary people."