Today sees the start of the Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
I’ve heard that it is going to be the largest and most important event in modern Chinese history (I think that there’s a bit of hyperbole there, as I’m not sure that it’s quite as important an event as the revolution, but perhaps I’m being pedantic, or I’m just not getting into the spirit of the thing).
A fortune has been spent on building the stadia, not forgetting the Olympic village, a complete, brand new airport and other infrastructure. The world’s media are in a frenzy. The athletes have been training for years, often dedicating their lives to their chosen sport and to the goal of an Olympic medal.
The huge amount of time, effort, money and emotion that are poured into the Olympic Games is truly staggering.
All this for a mere two weeks of activity that ultimately leads nowhere (other than in circles round a running track).
Personally I’d rather see the nations that compete in the games competing in something more practical and useful, such as trying to be the first to eradicate disease and poverty, or to reverse global warming. Why can’t people get as excited by those goals as they are over who’s going to win the 100 metre sprint?
The reasons are probably all there deep in our brains, hard wired from the days when physical prowess, such as the ability to down a mammoth with a javelin, was actually important. So it’s something we just can’t shift – although it may whither away over evolutionary time as the need to admire physical prowess becomes as redundant as the need for physical prowess itself (I’m writing this from the viewpoint of a physically inferior specimen of humanity, as you may suspect).
Despite its total lack of practical use, and its astonishingly high expenditure in terms of time, money and resources, sport at the level of the Olympics is for many people an ultimately worthwhile event due to the added value that it gives to their lives. In this way it sounds very similar to religion to me.
Those five interlinked circles of the Olympic symbol even look like haloes.
Religion makes people feel better and gives their lives direction and purpose – just as sport does (Both can go horribly wrong of course. Such as when you meet a group of over-excited supports of a rival team down a dark ally). Both sport and religion are based on, to me, spurious, vacuous or illusory ends, but they make people feel good about themselves. You can’t deny it – even if you wish it weren’t true.
As a committed non-religionist and non-sports fan I don’t want to sound smug – as though my own interests were somehow much more meaningful. We all have a tendency to inflate our own interests to a level of significance. Personally, I spend a lot of time wandering round art galleries looking at pictures. How much of a waste of time is that – shouldn’t I be saving the whales rather than admiring Botticelli’s Venus?
There’s something in the way that we pursue our interests, whether they be sport, art or whatever, that makes us inject them with great significance. The fact that we bolster the importance of our interests and concerns in this way is perhaps one of the reasons for the creation of religion in the first place. We took a normal concern like the meaning of life and blew it up out of all proportion.