Ancient games in modern times

I really can’t play any sports. I was never picked for games of cricket or football, and the only sporting event I have ever gotten a prize for was in grade 4, when I was the engine for my house team.

Therefore, you should take my unsolicited opinions about Olympics and sports very seriously.

The Olympics

India’s Neeraj Chopra recently won a gold medal in Javelin throw at the 2020 Olympics. Some people thought that this was amazing that we should be proud of our Olympic contingent, whilst others were quick to point out the fact that India had one only 1 gold medal, whilst our neighbors to the North had won 38. I, on the other hand, was confused about why we have a Javelin throwing contest at all.

Olympics were first held in ancient Greece, when it mattered how fast you could run or how far you could throw a javelin. The strength of your army, and hence, the security of your very household depended on it. If your army couldn’t hurl heavy objects at the enemy or your messengers couldn’t run fast enough to keep communication lines open on the battlefield, the enemy would roll into your city and kill you and your family for game. Physical prowess was often the sole determinant of whether one would survive to see the next day.

The games also had a political motive for the Greek city-states that were constantly at war with one another. Let me quote from the wikipedia article:

During the celebration of the games, an Olympic Truce was enacted so that athletes could travel from their cities to the games in safety. The prizes for the victors were olive leaf wreaths or crowns. The games became a political tool used by city-states to assert dominance over their rivals. Politicians would announce political alliances at the games, and in times of war, priests would offer sacrifices to the gods for victory. 

Greek city-states used the Olympics to demonstrate their physical capabilities, and also gauge that of others, so that they could decide whom they should ally with if a war broke out. The utility of these games spilled onto the real world, and had very real consequences.

The world has obviously changed a lot since 400 BC. Most educated persons now spend most of their time sitting in front of computers, working hard to make rich people even richer. Farming is becoming more and more mechanized, and even armies rely more on their weaponry and less on their physical power. Suffice it to say, being able to throw a javelin really far has no real world utility.

So what does that mean? Should we stop these games completely? For some reason, this seems wrong. I enjoy watching team sports for instance. There is a lot of strategy involved in those, and team sports generate a lot of revenue for individual owners and countries and such. However, individual athletic events have no such relevance. 230 million people are not going to tune in to watch the English Premier Long Jump. Training athletes for these events costs countries a lot of revenue, and almost none of this revenue is recovered. Long jump cannot be a spectator sport, even if you throw in some cheer leaders and Rihanna. It’s just someone jumping really long.

But wait. Countries still get to demonstrate their physical prowess right? Let’s explore this a little bit. It would seem clear to any viewer of international sports that physical prowess is not national. It is genetic. If you are 5′ 8” and want to become a sprinter, there is probably a black person in Jamaica who is faster than you, even if you receive better training than them and are ten times more patriotic than them. Although training does make a difference at the highest level, there are some necessary genetic pre-requisites. I mean, C’mon. That is why India has to resort to fielding Dutee Chand, a female athlete with abnormally high testosterone levels, to be able to have a stab at athletic medals, and $(&^%^(*& has to resort to widespread doping. A peek at the 100 m medalists at the modern Olympics should further convince you of this point. Countries gain very little by putting so much money into training athletes. No one is going to form a military alliance with Jamaica because they have a lot of people who can run very fast.

I’m still proud of Neeraj Chopra though, and I wish to become friends with him… case I ever need someone impaled 87.58 metres away.

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Graduate student

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