16 September 2011

Education, Sport, Entertainment

The summer Olympic Games are less than a year away. In those Games, athletes compete in numerous events, all physical. I saw the term Olympiad used also for non-physical contests, like the International Olympiad in Informatics. I wondered when did people start to refer to intellectual contests as Olympiads, so I tried Wikipedia and … did not find an answer. Instead, I did find out that 'Olympiad' means 'a period of four years.' Strictly speaking, it is erroneous to say 'Olympiad' for the event itself, especially if the event is annual.

Let's move on from etymology to a more interesting issue: What do these events have in common? Both are contests whose participants demonstrate skill levels that seem super-human. For a normal person, just watching the performances can be inspiring and motivating. I believe that this last similarity is key, because it is what makes the events good.

Let me explain.

If two people say that 'X is good,' they may, nevertheless,disagree. For example, if two people say that Natalie Portman is good, they may mean different things. One may mean she is a good actress but not a particularly good scientist; another may mean she is a good scientist but not a particularly good actress. It is therefore important to say what I mean by good. Briefly, something that benefits humankind.

So, what exactly is good about the Games? It can't be the extra pollution caused by hordes of people flying to London. It can't be the overcrowded tubes, which will make my life miserable. Could it be the entertainment it provides to so many people? It could, if only it were less expensive. I'm sure there are cheaper forms of entertainment, such as watching silly videos on YouTube.

So what is it?

Every performance, such as a movie, a dance, or a football game, makes people feel good while watching. More importantly, some performances have a lasting effect. Some movies haunt you for a long time and make you think about certain aspects of life. Beckham and Hagi inspired a whole generation to play football (in UK and Romania, respectively). That is one healthier generation than it could have been. Yes, the effects of one particular performance on one particular individual are small, but the effects add up.

In my mind, by far the most important contributions to society of the Olympic Games are the following.

  • promoting exercise and hence a healthier life-style
  • promoting fair-play

Identifying elites? A means to an end. The skills that awe us are not even the skills most useful to society. Schumacher is a good driver, but do we really think it would be good for society if all drivers would have his skills? The bus driver who takes children to school for 40 years without any accident is less awe inspiring, but his skills definitely benefit the lives of the many children he transports. Yes, there is some correlation between the two skills.

And so it is with intellectual contests.

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