Sunday, September 09, 2007

Whom the World Loves Today

Sometime in the 1920's, a cousin of mine established world records in two sports. My mom, who earlier today told me his story, is 89 and cannot recall offhand which two sports he excelled in. I might ask her someday to look it up in the family genealogy -- she has the records -- but I didn't want to put her to that trouble this morning. At any rate, my cousin's prowess in those two sports earned him an invitation to participate in one of the Olympics.

Unfortunately, after the invitation was extended, it was withdrawn upon discovery that my cousin was not that well rounded. He was indeed a superb athlete for his day, but it seems he lacked in academic accomplishments. That's to say, if his shoelaces had required a working knowledge of algebra or history for him to tie them, he would not have been able to tie his own laces. So, the Olympic Committee took back it's invitation. To understand why, it might be useful here to quote from Wikipedia:

The English public schools of the second half of the 19th century had a major influence on many sports. The schools contributed to the rules and influenced the governing bodies of those sports out of all proportion to their size. They subscribed to the Ancient Greek and Roman belief that sport formed an important part of education, an attitude summed up in the saying: mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a healthy body. In this ethos, taking part has more importance than winning, because society expected gentlemen to become all-rounders and not the best at everything. Class prejudice against "trade" reinforced this attitude. The house of the parents of a typical public schoolboy would have a tradesman's entrance, because tradesmen did not rank as the social equals of gentlemen. Apart from class considerations there was the typically English concept of "fairness," in which practicing or training was considered as tantamount to cheating; it meant that you considered it more important to win than to take part. Those who practiced a sport professionally were considered to have an unfair advantage over those who practiced it merely as a "hobby."
Those were the good old days: When athletes were expected to be gentlemen and gentlemen were expected to be well rounded. My cousin might easily have beaten the other competitors at that Olympics -- his records show that -- but that would have missed the point back then.

Today, most of us could not care less whether an Olympic athlete is a well-rounded gentleman or lady. For us, the Olympics are about athletic excellence, rather than virtue. And that attitude permeates all of society. Most of us admire a self-made millionaire for his business acumen even if he is only half-competent as a human being. We admire the famous for being famous without demanding they be more than marginally decent. We vote for politicians who are shrewd political operators but whose wisdom and understanding in all other matters borders on imbecilic. We are a world in love with the expert and the specialist. But we no longer love the gentleman, the lady, the well rounded amateur.

I do not know if that is a good thing or a bad thing -- overall. I can see strengths and weaknesses to both approaches. So, what do you think?

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