Olympics Medal Count Reflects World Order

All talk so far—at least on this side of the Atlantic—has been of the stellar rise of the United Kingdom, or Team GB, to the third place in the medals table. Many Americans, counting by total number of medals, might argue that the UK is in fact fourth. But the IOC counts by number of gold medals, and this is the measure that I have preferred in this article.

With only a few hours and a few medals to go before the closing ceremony, team GB has taken 28 gold medals, considerably more than the 19 it took at Beijing four years ago. In fact, this is our greatest medal haul since the first London Olympics in 1908. To put things into perspective, the USA with six times our population pulled in ‘just’ 44 gold medals, and China with 20 times our population pulled in just 38.

This is not in any way to diminish the achievements of the USA and China, which, until recently, had been fighting neck and neck for pole position. Of course, purists will argue that this is not what the Olympics are about: unlike, say, the World Cup, it is not a national team or a country that ‘wins’ at the Olympics, but only the individual athletes. Nevertheless, it remains that many countries see the medal count as indicative of their status in the world. And based on precedent, they are right to do so.

Excluding London 2012, there have been 26 modern Olympic Games, starting with Athens in1896 and ending with Beijing in 2008. There would have been 29 if three (1916, 1940, and 1944) had not been cancelled for cause of war. In 1896, 241 athletes came to represent 14 countries; by 2008, 10,500 athletes represented 204 countries. But the modern Olympic Games have been almost entirely dominated by the 20th century’s two great superpowers: out of 26, the USA topped the medals table 16 times and the USSR seven times. The USSR only came top in and after 1956, that is, during the cold war period when it’s rivalry (not to say enemity) with the USA was at its most virulent.

In other words, there have only been three Games that have not been ‘won’ by the USA or the USSR: London 1908, Berlin 1936, and Beijing 2008. In all three cases, the winner was the host country, Great Britain in 1908, Germany in 1936, and China in 2008—each at a time when it aspired to be top dog in the world (and, no doubt, invested in sports accordingly).

Until the very last few days of London 2012, it seemed that China could, once again, come first (but this time outside home turf), which, in many people’s eyes, would have marked or confirmed a seismic shift in the world order. Of course, the USSR no longer exists. It’s heir, Russia, is nonetheless fourth in the medals table with 21 gold medals, and countries which used to be part of the USSR, in particular Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus, have done rather well, with 14 gold medals between the three. A culture and legacy of athleticism is hard to break. Another surprise, at least to me, is Korea with 13 gold medals, eclipsing both Germany with 11 and France with only 10—almost three times fewer than its best friend and arch nemesis, the United Kingdom.

All this muscle flexing is not only beautiful to watch, but also considerably healthier and cheaper than a nuclear arms race or out-and-out war. Britain invested only £125 million in its athletes, which means that each medal cost the British tax payer about three pence.

As a psychaitrist, I am bound to say that the Olympic Games are a prime example of the sublimation of the war instinct.

But I think the real lesson here is this: that success is the result of how you see yourself.

Aristotle on Education

The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead. - Aristotle

The education of the citizens should match the character of the constitution, for the character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy, and the better the character, the better the government. As the entire city has but one end, education should be the same for all, and should be public rather than private. Children should be taught those useful things that are really necessary, but not all useful things, and in particular not those that are vulgar. By ‘vulgar’ is meant those that tend to deform the body or that lead to paid employment. All paid employment absorbs and degrades the mind.

The four traditional branches of education are (1) reading and writing, (2) gymnastics, (3) music, (4) drawing. The Ancients included music not for the sake of utility but for that of intellectual enjoyment in leisure. Unlike music, reading and writing and drawing do have utility, but they also have liberal applications. In particular, reading and writing can open up other forms of knowledge, and drawing can lead to an appreciation of the beauty of the human form. Leisure should not be confused with amusement and relaxation, which are the antidotes to effort and exertion. The busy man strives for an end that he has not yet attained, but happiness is the end. Thus, happiness is experienced not by busy men, but by those with leisure. That which is noble should come before that which is brutal. Courage is more a function of nobility than of ferocity, and to turn children into athletes risks injuring their forms and stunting their growth. For these reasons, children should practice nothing more strenuous than light gymnastics. Following the onset of puberty, three years should be spent in study, and only after this triennium may a youth engage in hard exercise. However, the youth should guard against labouring mind and body at the same time, for they are inimical to each other.

Returning to the subject of music, it is not easy to determine its nature, nor why anyone should have knowledge of it. Perhaps music, like sleep or drinking, offers nothing more than amusement and relaxation. Perhaps it promotes virtue. Or perhaps it contributes to the enjoyment of leisure and to mental cultivation. Some say that no freeman should play or sing unless he is intoxicated or in jest, so why learn music and not simply enjoy the pleasure and instruction that comes from hearing it from others? Our considered opinion is that children should learn music so that they might become performers and critics, but their musical education should not extend too far beyond an appreciation of rhythm and harmony, and not to instruments such as the flute or lyre which require great skill but contribute nothing to the mind.

In addition to this common pleasure, felt and shared in by all … may [music] not have also some influence over the character and the soul? It must have such an influence if characters are affected by it. And that they are so affected is proved in many ways, and not least by the power which the songs of Olympus exercise; for beyond question they inspire enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is an emotion of the ethical part of the soul. Besides, when men hear imitations, even apart from the rhythms and tunes themselves, their feelings move in sympathy. Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…

- Politics, Book 8

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

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