Faster, higher, and stronger? We can do better.

by Quinn O'Neill

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-S0611-0025,_Günter_AmbraßOlympic excitement is in the air as the world’s best athletes get ready to take the stage. Many of them have been preparing for this for most of their young lives. It’s a shot at a gold medal and the glory that comes with it, and a chance to test their mettle against the very best in the world.

Perhaps we should qualify the term “best in the world”, though, since a lot of potential competition is eliminated rather unfairly before the games begin. A champion’s win is really only a fair victory over those who've had the same opportunity to develop their talents. There are about a billion people in the world who can’t afford to eat let alone participate in sports, and a lot more who can only afford to participate at lower levels.

It’s a privilege to be able to dedicate your life to achieving extreme excellence in a sport, especially since Olympic sporting activities tend to be of little practical value. Sure, sprinting skills might come in handy when you're trying to outrun a predator, and I guess you never know when you might need to row backwards across a lake really fast, but by and large, the utility of such skills doesn't justify the effort it takes to develop them. Watching events like javelin and race walking, it would seem that human beings will compete at just about anything, just for the sake of competing.

The famed motto “faster, higher, stronger” implies progress, but progess toward what? Since the Olympics' origins millenia ago, we’ve made great advances in technological and industrial domains, as well as in athletics. Watching a grotesquely strained athlete heave a massive weight over his head at the risk of snapping his bones, one might wonder if he’s aware that it’s not 700 BC anymore and that we have machines to lift heavy loads for us. But the Olympics have never been about practicality or the progress of civilization as a whole.

We tend to take pride in the achievements of our country’s Olympic athletes, as if it’s an accomplishment to live within the same borders as someone who’s really good at a sport; but the accomplishment is very much the individual's. Humans as a whole don’t seem to be getting faster, higher, and stronger. A lot of us are pretty sedentary, and elite athletes may represent increasingly extreme outliers.

Considering the reality of immigration and the arbitrary nature of borders, it’s a wonder that we take pride specifically in the performances of our own country’s athletes. Guor Marial, a marathoner from the Republic of South Sudan won’t be representing his country this year since it doesn’t yet have a National Olympic Committee. He’s been living and working in the US, but he isn’t a full citizen there so he can’t represent the US either. He’ll be running as an independent under the Olympic flag. Competing against him for team USA will be two runners who were also born in African countries. These are undeniably some of the best distance runners in the world and the color of their flags won’t change that. Should we care what country they run for?

Athletes of African descent are a dominant force in sports and account for most of the world’s top sprinters and distance runners. African-Americans make up 65 percent of the NFL and 80 percent of the NBA. These figures probably reflect the higher frequency of performance-enhancing genes in those with relatively recent African ancestry. The uneven distribution of such genes has led some to suggest that we might someday use science to level the genetic playing field, or allow handicaps to make things more fair. Perhaps in the interest of fairness, we might also ensure a more even distribution of food and resources, since these are also factors in athletic success – but probably not.

If we’re prepared to enhance our genetic endowment, maybe we should ask ourselves if improving athletic ability should be our prime objective. I’d like to think that if we were to tweak our genomes for reasons other than improved health, we might make ourselves smarter or happier or maybe less inclined to tribalism and violence; but perhaps some people would prefer just to be able to run like cheetahs.

The upcoming multi-billion dollar sporting spectacle is really a display of our deranged priorities and ignorance. With an estimated 17, 000 children starving to death worldwide every day, nothing says “I don’t give a damn” like investing billions of dollars to find out who can run and swim the fastest. Almost a quarter of America’s kids live in poverty and a great number of adults are unemployed, but team USA will be sporting ridiculously expensive, made in China, Ralph Lauren duds. While Americans have been preoccupied with sports and the Kardashians, jobs have been drifting overseas. And as we revel in Olympic sportsmanship and comaraderie in the upcoming weeks, exploited workers will be stitching our future clothes in foreign sweat shops.

In some respects, elite sports may not be functionless at all. As Noam Chomsky put it, sports offer people “something to pay attention to that’s of no importance, that keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea about doing something about.” Sports provide “a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements” he says. “In fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism.”

If the parallel between elite sports and military aggression is obscure, it wasn't missed by 16-year-old Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas, whose father served in Afghanistan. In an interview last year, she likened her own sports involvement to her father’s military service. “It makes me feel so honoured, proud, that he’s my Dad, and it’s just like us performing; we fight for USA, team USA gymnastics.” *

Fighting for the USA in either capacity is important enough that people are allowed to do it before they’re old enough to legally enjoy a beer. A youth may enlist in the military at age 17, and by this age, elite gymnasts have already logged a decade of intensive training with great sacrifice and high risk of injury and impaired growth. What keeps us from questioning the logic of this?

The achievements of elite athletes are undeniably impressive, but there'd be greater cause for celebration if we could find an enjoyable and entertaining way to harness our competitive spirit for the benefit of humanity. It’s not 700 BC anymore; maybe it’s time to carry the torch in a new direction.

*A few “likes” and “you knows” were removed from this quote to make it easier to read. Please follow the link to the video for the original.

Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S0611-0025 / CC-BY-SA; Wikimedia Commons