As has been well documented on this blog, I believe that one possible lens for the analysis of politics is the philosophy of aesthetics. Whether or not it is meaningful is up to each person, but it nevertheless contributes information. Hence my “politicians as artists” series. In the spirit of the Olympics, I want to touch briefly on athletics.
The notion of ‘athletic beauty’ has been discussed since time immemorial, though notably by Plato, who believed that it was surely one of the most beautiful of the arts. I cannot find the source (wild guess: The Republic), but I seem to recall Plato glorifying athletics because athletes shape themselves and train (a sacrifice?) for performance that all recognize as beautiful. While something can be said for this appraisal of athletics, modern athletics do not often resemble the athletics of Plato’s time, which I believe consisted of wrestling, wrestling, and a lot more wrestling. ( Yuck. )
Today we have well-developed professional leagues and massive state-operated programs to develop athletics. In the former case, examples in America include the MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL, amongst others. Some deride these leagues, pointing to the huge amounts of money that team owners and players seem awash in. How can much beauty come from that? Or look in the latter case toward China’s sophisticated program of developing athletes. Critics point out that some athletes are selected at very young ages to train to become guardians of national honor, and they will be told they cannot see their parents for over a decade. Weekends off? Hah! Plus, the national government can throw as much money as they want at it. In both cases, where is the pure dedication to performance as an end in itself, or for the service of others?
I, on the other hand, think that we should consider athletic achievements irrespective of the money. The Olympics are a chance to do that. Yes, America is a wealthy country whose people can afford to spend lots of money (the income effect being larger than the substitution effect for many helps) on athletics which thereby creates huge opportunities for development. Yes, China can only compete with this by spending a massive amount of taxpayer money on similar development. In either case, or in neither, the achievements by the athletes stand by themselves however. All achievements have their context in time, of course, but money just provides opportunities — money isn’t some intangible substance, rather, it represents people’s values and concerns. So can’t we revel in the awesome display of athleticism by the ubiquitous Michael Phelps in the same way as we can in the precision and austerity of the underaged He Ke Xin?
The Olympics, at their best, concern the excellence of the human form. In so doing, at their best, they transcend the lesser concerns of identity and politics to draw our gaze toward the art of athletic beauty and achievement. The Beijing Olympics were a terrific success and we should be proud of the achievements of the Chinese athletes, as if, in some ways, they were our very own. To appreciate them thusly would be a proper celebration of the Olympics.