Sport and virtue have been linked since ancient times, when the two were often interchangeable. The Greeks believed that sport helped cultivate virtue, and that virtue in turn helped one excel as an athlete. Ancient texts such as the Iliad feature not only battles but also athletic encounters such as footraces, where human cunning as well as human strength might carry the day, and show victors to be favorites of the gods. Aristotle believed that sport was akin to contemplation, taking us out of ourselves to concentrate on something greater.
Today we celebrate athletes as exemplars of courage, persistence, generosity, and discipline because we believe in the virtues inherent in athleticism, as well as believing in athletes as virtuous. Sports coverage almost always features back stories of athletes overcoming adversity, injury, and personal setbacks on their way to success, accommodating audience expectations that gifted athletes must also be gifted human beings. Conversely, we continue to be shocked and disappointed when great athletes demonstrate vice or bad character traits. We require that our athletes perform virtue, with advertisers often pulling endorsements from players who are less than stellar role models, and giving endorsements to those competitors who have shown especially strong discipline and conviction. Television coverage of this year’s Olympic skaters seems especially interested in the persistence and discipline of young athletes, fixating on the sheer duration of time—all of their young lives– spent training for national and international competition, as well as the sacrifices that accompany such training. Each night of skating has featured film footage and photographs of U.S. team siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani as small children training together, while the internet has parsed and rehashed interviews with former Olympians Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir where each claimed not to have attended their high school proms because “we had no childhoods.”
It is no surprise, then, to find descriptions of the virtue cultivated by practicing sports and the virtue inherent in sports celebrated everywhere on the official Olympic site Olympic.org. We at the Virtue Project thought we would share with you some of the highlights of the site, and encourage you to explore the resources on virtue and sport the Olympic committee has put together there.
Paul Christesen, Professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth College, USA, notes the importance of the Olympic games for the Greeks, who interrupted and delayed wars in order to participate in them:
“The classic example is that when the Persians invaded Greece in the summer of 480 (BC) a lot of the Greek city states agreed that they would put together an allied army but they had a very hard time getting one together because so many people wanted to go to the Olympics. So, they actually had to delay putting the army together to defend the country against the Persians.”
Of special note, too, is the “About” tab, where links to information of the Olympic mission of promoting sport for hope, the ethics of sport, women and sport, healthy body image, peace through sport, and promoting Olympism in society, among many other topics, can be found. The “Promote Olympism in Society” tab is especially inspirational, with links to the Olympic Charter, material on education through sport and social development through sport, and the declaration, in bold, that reads:
OLYMPISM IS A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE, EXALTING AND COMBINING IN A BALANCED WHOLE THE QUALITIES OF BODY, WILL AND MIND. BLENDING SPORT WITH CULTURE AND EDUCATION, OLYMPISM SEEKS TO CREATE A WAY OF LIFE BASED ON THE JOY FOUND IN EFFORT, THE EDUCATIONAL VALUE OF GOOD EXAMPLE AND RESPECT FOR UNIVERSAL FUNDAMENTAL ETHICAL PRINCIPLES.
We hope as you watch the Olympics and rejoice in the courage and grace of so many diverse athletes from our own country and from all over the world, you take a minute to page through the Olympic website, and to contemplate the ancient Olympics, where the thrill of sport could redirect the passions of war, and our modern Games, founded on the notion that the cultivation of character through training and competition might bring the people of different nations together to celebrate human endeavor in the spirit of brotherhood and world peace.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.