May 18, 2012, by Stephen Mumford

The Olympic Flame

Today (18th May) sees the Olympic torch arrive in the UK, having begun its journey in Greece eight days ago. It is to be carried through 1,019 places the length and breadth of the UK before arriving in the Olympic Stadium. It was the Nazis who began this tradition for the 1936 games, harking back to ancient Greek mythology. Prometheus stole fire from Zeus.

It seems we are going to a lot of trouble over a sports event, though we follow many predecessors who did the same. Wars were suspended so that the ancient games could take place. Nothing was more important than sport. But is this really the case?

What is sport all about and how could anyone think it quite this important in a world in which people still suffer and starve and there are disciplines such as physics and philosophy that still need our attention? I hope that Olympic year in the UK is a chance not just to enjoy the games but also to contemplate the place of sport and physical activity in our lives.

At first glance, sport and games look utterly pointless. Why jump over the high-jump bar when, if one wants to get to the other side, it would be easier to walk under it? And why toil so hard in the heat to get a ball in an opponent’s net? Surely nothing hangs on it: no world peace or cure for cancer.

But the fact that we put so much into sport, both playing it and watching it, tells us there must be a deeper meaning to it. Why all the trouble? Game playing, I suggest, must be an end in itself; for it gets us nothing otherwise useful. We want to show what we can do, both mentally and physically, and sport is the forum that encourages us to do so. We are also curious as spectators. How high can someone jump and how fast can a human run? Contests of skill and virtue intrigue us. Which of the two teams has mastery of the game? Who has the most ability and is able to employ it to best measure? These are all important questions to us because their answers would tell us so much about what we are. We are embodied and empowered rational agents. In sport and games we show that, and the upper limits of that empowerment

Sport isn’t all about muscle, aggression and sweat. Among other things, it can give us an insight into the human condition. I hope some of us use the Olympics as an occasion for thinking philosophically on what it’s all about, and not just in the ways I’ve indicated.

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