Anyone who knows me very well knows I’m not really into sports. Even though I have attended a number of sporting events in person—NFL Football, Lakers Basketball, Angel’s Baseball, Rocky Hockey, world-class tennis, golf and a few others—it was always about the experience. I guess I figure that if I am going to watch others play sports, then I want to be present and not just passively watching on TV. Maybe that’s why even though I can appreciate some of the 2012 World Olympics—it only partially captures my interest. It also makes me ask, why do we continue to put so much emphasis on what is physically possible, but very little attention on intelligence and creativity? Why don’t we hold a “Creative” Olympics every four years? Or what about holding a worldwide Olympics of Compassion? One can only guess what an Olympics for the Mind might foster for the people of the world.
As most of us know, the Olympics first started with the Greeks nearly three-quarters of a millennia before the beginning of Christianity. I did a little research and was reminded that the Greeks believed that the games unified them nationally and spiritually. Not only were the games a celebration of their physical excellence; they also included an aesthetic and social side as well. Poets, writers and artists were given the opportunity to present their works to a large international audience. Plus, leaders from opposing city-states would gather and discuss ideas and differences. Even during periods of war or conflict, the Olympics were conducted in a way that promoted peace and harmony as an ideal for mankind.
Unfortunately once the Romans conquered the country, the Olympics were banned for what they considered to be the religious implications practiced by the Greeks. It was nearly 1,500 years later that the Olympic dream was reawakened by a French man named Pierre De Coubertin. Coubertin was convinced that the games had the power to encourage healthy living in people, as well as serve as a unifying and peace-creating forum for many of the nations of the world. Held in Athens in 1894, the reinstated Olympics included 14 nations and 245 athletes. This year’s event has grown to 204 countries and nearly 10,500 athletes.
Most of us still believe that the original Olympic ideals of peace and goodwill are present at modern games. And no one, not even a person who avoids most sports like me, can deny the incredible dedication, skill and mental focus required to become such a world-class athlete. Regardless of one’s interest in sports, witnessing the triumph and achievement of the human body deserves praise and admiration. But like I asked before, I can’t help but wonder why we don’t make the same effort to explore the furthest reaches of the human mind, imagination and consciousness. Likewise, what about celebrating the depth and breadth of human compassion?
In case you are wondering, there actually is a sort of “Olympics of the Mind” called “Odyssey of the Mind.” Never heard of it? My point exactly. To begin with Odyssey of the Mind is an international education program that encourages creative problem solving in students from kindergarten through college. In the competition, teams compete with one another to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices to presenting plays that interpret literary classics. Thousands of teams within the U.S. and from about 25 other countries compete in the program.
Certainly Odyssey of the Mind is great for young people—but it isn’t really the same as the Olympics where competitions between individuals are created to push them to excel in ways that are uncommon to regular life—and sponsors spend billions of dollars to help promote it. I’m not even certain what my ideas would look like—but it could be amazing to witness. Surely rooting for a team to come up with the most creative solution to global warming, or discovering how to eliminate certain diseases, or inventing ways to make inexpensive drinking water from salt water, or conceiving of a way to make cheap, non-polluting energy, or any one of dozens of problems that face our world would be ultra exciting. I don’t know about you, but I would stay glued to a television program that featured some of the brightest and most creative people on the planet who competed to provide solutions to some of those issues.
Or consider how a competition to reveal the most compassionate and generous actions on the planet by a regular person would make a riveting television show. Who wouldn’t be captivated by watching people like you and me from around the world compete to be the most kind, loving and generous person on the planet? I’m not sure what those competitions would look like either, but I can only imagine how we would all benefit by watching and cheering them along.
So what’s stopping us? To quote the famous Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” For one thing, the majority of us would rather observe young healthy humans competing in activities that no one else can perform in the comfort of our own homes. Not only are we passively entertained, watching others struggle and “win” allows us to vicariously triumph in some tiny way. We all appreciate entertainment to some degree, so it’s no surprise that sports is a preferred entertainment of many. What is still unclear is why things more related to the vast abilities of the mind, or the depth of the imagination or heart don’t hold equal attraction?
I’m sure one of the existing problems is that it is much easier to focus on the physical—than the mental, emotional and spiritual. It would also be difficult to make those types of competitions as dramatic as a five-minute 500-meter swim competition. And of course we’d need big corporate sponsors. As we all know, Sports is big business. In the U.S. alone it is said by SGMA (trade association for sports and fitness) that Sports generates $60 billion ($60 BILLION!) in domestic revenue and $15 billion internationally. If the average person can be bombarded by commercials about every five minutes whenever they watch the Olympics or any sporting event on television, the corporate world will do it’s best to make sports seem like the only “game” in town.
Plus, there is also an element to the Olympics, and any sport for that matter, that keeps us glorifying youth. While this year’s Olympics has pointed out the few exceptional athletes that are over 30—the average age is 27 and the majority are in their 20s. Watching these young people perform may be exciting—but we forget we are stating to the entire world that youth and its physical prowess is the greatest goal possible. Our entire culture seems to ignore the value of wisdom and life experience. A Kaiser research study shows that famous athletes rank second only to parents as people children admire the most. And even though this study showed that children recognize that professional sports figures frequently take steroids or other banned substances (62%); that cheating is commonplace (46%); are able to have sex with anyone they want (27% of teens and 12% of 10-12 year olds); drink too much alcohol (22% and 39%); and break the law (81% and 40%); –professional athletes continue to remain heroes to the younger set.
But how many kids will actually grow up to become professional athletes? According to a study by Dr. Christopher Stankovich, “for every 30 million kids who annually play sports, only 5-7% will ever play past high school into college…and less than 2% (who play in college) will ever play professional sports!” The National Collegiate Athletic Association says that somewhere between .02% and .45% who play college sports go on to be professional athletes. But kids aren’t being told that—when asked, the number one career choice for a male child is professional athlete, and young girls are not far behind. The continued emphasis on sports in our country helps to feed the illusion that a child can become a sports superstar—at least for their first 30 years or so. Maybe it would be wise as a country to begin to admire intelligence, creativity and compassion as qualities that our children might prefer in addition to a lean and mean competitive body.
Of course, I’m not advocating that people give up sports. I like entertainment just like everyone else. But let’s admit that watching sports and contributing to the betterment of the world are two different things. I would also like to promote the idea that we give equal time and attention to something that stretches our minds as much as our muscles—and one that recognizes the value of maturity and age. Our world is facing tremendous challenges and the best way to overcome them is to use the creativity, inspiration and mental abilities we all have been endowed with. I look forward to the day when gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded, and championed around the world, to the people who solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. What about you?
“The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends on large measure upon the how our children grow up today. There is no greater insight into the future than recognizing when we save our children, we save ourselves.” ~Margaret Mead
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” ~ Albert Einstein