by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Diogenes met Kikermos, the Olympic pankration champion, on the road. Kikermos was followed by a cheering crowd. Diogenes asked Kikermos why these people were so enamored with him.
“I beat everyone at the pankration,” Kikermos replied.
“Oh! So you beat everyone at the pankration, even Zeus?” Diogenes asked.
“No! I beat all those who entered the pankration”
“Hm. So you beat the little boys who entered the junior division?”
“No! I bet all the men who entered the pankration, in the men’s division.”
“Oh, so you beat them all in one giant brawl?
“No! I beat all the men in one-on-one contests.”
“Oh, so since you beat all the men, that’s how you beat yourself?”
“No! I only beat all the others.”
“Oh, so were they stronger than you?”
“No! I was stronger than them!”
“Hm. So why is it such a great feat for you to defeat all these others that are weaker than you?”
Diogenes watched the Olympic races, hoping to see examples of excellence. Upon seeing a heat of runners finish, he crept up to the winner’s stand and stole all the prizes for first place. He hustled to the woods nearby and deposited them there.
He returned and announced what he had done, because he had determined that though there are runners at the games that are faster than others, none are faster than the deer that live in the wilds. So none here should be allowed to claim the prize for ‘the fastest.’
Diogenes saw a group of athletes training. When asked if he saw excellence there, he said he saw those who trained to run and kick well, but he saw none who excelled in virtue.
As a wrestler was preparing for a match, he could not keep his eyes off a young woman in the crowd. Even when making his way to the ring, the wrestler would crane to get a glimpse of her. Diogenes saw all this and said, “Our champion has no chance – this thin little woman has already him caught in a neck lock.”
These stories of Diogenes are likely apocryphal. The first comes from the collection of Cynic Lettters, written late in the second century CE. The second is from Dio Chrysostom from the first century CE, and the third is from Diogenes Laertius in the third century CE. All very late reports, but each has a grain of truth to them about the man. Accurate representations of Diogenes or not, they are part of a Cynic tradition of upending social norms that controvert natural values. As Dio Chrysostom puts it, the Cynic’s role is that of piercing pretensions as doctors lance blisters.
As the Olympics are about to begin, and the European and South American soccer tournaments close, and the Tour de France continues, and the NBA Playoffs come to their crescendo, we ask in Diogenes’s spirit: So what? Why does sport play the role it does in our culture? What exactly is the achievement of sporting victory?
Consider an answer to Diogenes’s challenge to Kikermos that his victory is not meaningful, since he was stronger than his competitors. The victory is the means of determining who is stronger. And so it’s in being the strongest that we root the praise – the athletic victory is just our way of discovering who we should praise for being strongest.
There is much to commend this answer, as the games are designed to be fair contests that allow strengths to be expressed and determinative. But also consider the ways that this does not work quite so easily. It is certainly possible for inferior competitors to win, and it often seems that the underdogs get more praise for their wins than those who were clearly the better or stronger.
Consider also ways that luck plays a significant role in paths to victory. There likely will be a medalist in the sprints at the coming Olympics who would otherwise not have had a medal, had the USOC not had a ban on marijuana. Soccer teams that advance though the rounds by winning in penalties surely know that it is luck that determined their outcome. Any rider in the current Tour de France knows that luck kept them off the pavement many times in the race this year, and luck put many of their competitors in the ditch. Is the spectator’s joy here merely in witnessing the vicissitudes of fate for others?
Another way to view Diogenes’s reaction to the games is to contrast athletic excellence with what the ancient Cynic program offers. The Cynic was someone who saw through the false sophistication and misplaced values of much of culture, and the games were prime targets for their critical eye. Consider the ugly nationalisms that bubble up in the midst of Olympic and other international competition. As one sees one’s citizens as frenzied fans of the nation’s soccer team or most photogenic gymnast, one can see perhaps too clearly the groundless frenzy of one’s national politics. The greater the enthusiasm, all the more dreadful it seems. Thinking and living otherwise would be a real relief.
The Cynic alternative, however, is clearly impracticable. Living on next to nothing, possessing nothing, desiring only virtue. This is just not an option for those with many obligations, dependents, and roles to play. In fact, it was this thought that drove Zeno of Citium, in the generation of Cynics after Diogenes, to propose reforms and found the alternative school of Stoicism. But the Cynic’s critical insight is not undercut by the problem with their alternative. The question still remains: What does the fixation with sport do to a culture? What does the status of sporting talent do to a young person’s mind and values? Why are the minutiae of a team’s transfer choices actual news when political corruption is rampant and injustice widely manifest? And why, despite knowing all this, do so many of us still joyfully watch and cheer?