2010-01-25 21:56:39

 Harmony and power

  Apollo Belvedere

  Michael Phels




The Olympic Games are a celebration—such a party that one feels like a spoilsport or a killjoy for criticizing them. It is especially problematic when the party ends, as it did in Turin in 2006, with a demonstration of prowess such as that of the mayor, who is quadriplegic, of the city slated to welcome the next games in 2010: Vancouver. It is also clear that sport and the Olympic Games promote the feeling of belonging. The personal testimony of former Mayor Sam Sullivan on this matter is as eloquent as was his accomplishment at Turin.

It is also very clear, however, that this feeling of belonging may take on the form of fanaticism: such was the situation in Berlin in 1936. Olympic sport served then as an instrument of totalitarian aims. The Games have also often been criticized—the Atlanta games in particular—for being at the service of commercial interests. It must be posited that the Games only adequately satisfy the need for belonging under certain conditions. What are these conditions? It requires critical thinking to define and delimit them properly.

Who would think of criticizing Olympic Games’ commentators for placing too much emphasis on the personal efforts athletes have had to make to become champions? The American philosopher, Michael Sandel, has, nevertheless, in our day formulated such a critique, in an article titled “The Case Against Perfection.” Appearing in The Atlantic Monthly in 2004, the article has received a great deal of attention and comment, and it is as pertinent today as when first published. The title surprises at first glance, for how could one oppose perfection? Indeed, one can do nothing other than admire perfection if it is the coefficient of love. We admire it also if it takes the form of interior beauty (goodness, kindness) manifesting itself through exterior beauty. This is the Greek ideal of kalokagathia, from kalos, beautiful, and agathos, good. But if kindness or goodness stray from love in this synthesis, we risk, in the name of the ideal, becoming harsh in relation to beings who are less graceful, in the manner of Ulysses who, in The Iliad, mistreated Thersites, the hunchback.

We remain in the realm of being when we weld perfection to love and beauty. All too often, however, we reduce perfection to doing and, consequently, do not even associate perfection with the person him or herself, but rather with some of his or her acts, which are then compared to other acts and to records, as for example, in situations like the Olympic Games. Here, then, a word that appeared in nineteenth-century England, in the world of equestrian sports is more apt: here we are talking about “performance.”

The evidence is clear that performance becomes the absolute value to which we subordinate and sacrifice everything else. Not only do some risk developing certain muscles disproportionately, thereby destroying the harmony of their bodies; more important still, we are not even interested in being, in the interior life, except as a way of building concentration and determination. Thus the body, and the soul itself, become instruments at the service of the single faculty that remains important to the human being: the will to win. It must be noted that the real pleasure linked to exercise enjoyed for itself, which is the essence of game and of sport, is relegated to second place in comparison to the strange, abstract pleasure linked to the matter of breaking a record.

We might do well to understand this hierarchy of values as an exact replica of the one which prevails in a vision of the world where nature, in its entirety, is subordinated and sacrificed to the goal of the growth of GDP. In this context, the recourse to artificial aids to build performance of the human being is in the nature of the case. Thus have enhanced man and woman appeared. Enhanced, but not improved.

Because of the progress made in the sciences and bio-technology, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to artificial means of enhancing memory, endurance, or sexual potency. And the context is such that the reasons for using them appear more numerous and stronger than those that argue against it. It is a question of individual choice—and everyone knows that individual choice is an absolute value in liberal democracies. The “weak,” under these conditions, may then come to be defined as those who choose against becoming strong when the possibility is offered them.

We should fear the loss of compassion—and its concomitant, profound belonging—insofar as we develop more and more reasons to think that weakness is a consequence of the “non-enhancement” of mankind rather than a gift of nature. In a world where growth hormones are available to all, we may tend to become more critical of people of small stature—coming to feel that nature is not the cause of this state, but rather negligence on the part of the individual in question or of his or her parents. The overblown importance we thus attach to personal merit can only chill and toughen human relationships. Humanity will come to look like a basketball team, and the more we have reason to think that their size is their fault, the more we will criticize smaller players for weakening the team. Worse still, we will be suspicious of the parents of a disabled child! We will reproach them for not having done what needed to be done to avoid this “problem” by having an abortion.

This is one of Michael Sandel’s fears. He suggests in its place a philosophy of gift: that we deem the undesirable being a gift of nature as precious as the desirable being and, equally important, that we consider the gifts one receives at the beginnings of life as more crucial than personal merit.

Sandel writes: “Why, after all, do the successful owe anything to the least-advantaged members of society? The best answer to this question leans heavily on the notion of giftedness. The natural talents that enable the successful to flourish are not their own doing but, rather, their good fortune—a result of the genetic lottery. If our genetic endowments are gifts, rather than achievements for which we can claim credit, it is a mistake and a conceit to assume that we are entitled to the full measure of the bounty they reap in a market economy. We therefore have an obligation to share this bounty with those who, through no fault of their own, lack comparable gifts.”

It is clear that the Olympic Games in their current form reinforce meritocracy and encourage dehumanization. An equal respect for amateur efforts would be the first condition required to redress the situation. The second would be the re-establishment of human perfection, rather than performance, as a goal. Few people will take these conditions seriously because they seem utopian. But those who think the status quo is satisfactory must face the following question: How are to redress the entirety of our relationships with nature, re-learn to appreciate its gifts, and ensure its durability and longevity, if we do not first make this transition in the realm of sport, which is itself also a matter of a gift? Sandel asks, in conclusion: ''It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.''

The poet, Pindar, the ''commentator''of the ancient Games, in Greece, was astonished instead by the gifts nature had bestowed on the best athletes. «All the resources for the achievements of mortal excellence come from the gods; for being skillful, or having powerful arms, or an eloquent tongue. » Pindar, Pythian I


Jacques Dufresne is the editor of  L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora. He founded the journal Critère, was columnist at  La Presse durging eight years and Le Devoir  during seven year. He organised  many colloquiums and public debates of some importance. [Read more ...]


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