The Virtue Olympics


We love to praise the Olympics, hearkening back to ancient origins, for championing the purity of amateurism in sports, and love to grumble about how something is lost when anyone can play. I think the criticism misses the mark, and what is actually at stake is virtue. We hear a lot about how sports are a metaphor for life, that we can learn a lot about people from the way they play sports, that through sports we can become better people. We like to promote sportsmanship and a spirit of fair play. But when it comes to identifying the world’s best athletes, what’s agape got to do with it? Bear with me as we go back in time.

The myths and epic stories of all the world’s cultures (e.g., The Mahabharata/Bagavad Gita, Greek mythology/The Iliad, the Old and New Testaments) were allegories for life. They developed to help humans grasp complex concepts and provided guidance for navigating the ethical and moral struggles of human life. In most stories, the hero is called to adventure (leaving behind the comforts and safety of home), has his character tested by all sorts of challenges, and returns home significantly transformed by his journey (or ascends to heaven). His story exemplifies the deeds, characteristics, features, and morals valued by that culture.

Not surprisingly his story is often taken as history and who hasn’t at least in times of duress looked to the heavens for mercy and guidance. In ancient Hellenistic civilization gods and heroes were thought to control the fates of man, and thus were worshiped to curry favor and avoid malicious reprisal. In ancient Greece, artistic and athletic contests (and ritual sacrifices) were regularly held to appease the gods; in times of unending war and suffering, these rituals were intended to bring peace, harmony and a return to the idyllic Greek way of life (i.e., the good old days).

Originally religious ceremonies, these contests were also used for political purposes, to spread Greek culture, and to identify the exemplars of the athletic and artistic forms. In the Panhellenic Games, of which one was the Olympic Games, the victors did not receive material rewards and instead were presented with an olive wreath, a sacred symbol of strength, peace and enlightenment. This is the forebear of the amateur aesthetic: competing not for material reward, but for virtue; to please god.

Sidenote: Being the best had its perks. Though not at the games, victors at the Olympics were generally showered with gifts and honors when they returned to their home towns, and their feats were chronicled for future generations. Unlike the gods, men were mortal. But through fame attained in contests of war, athletics, or the arts, heroes survived their death. This is the origin of both hero worship (i.e., like a god) and how forgoing a direct reward can mean little when fame and sponsorships can mean so much.


Gods were worshiped and emulated. Gods such as Apollo and Hermes were cast as ideals of athletic skill and physique, but also of the virtues. The challenge was to emulate the gods and heroes. Most of the games were played in the nude. A would-be hero played well and played properly. It was through these contests that youth forged and proved their character. This is the forebear of sportsmanship, which became romanticized in modern times.

The Romantic era engendered efforts to revive the Olympics, in a nationalistic sense for a Greek state that had just regained its independence, but also in that time’s yearning to rediscover the essence of things, the purest forms, the natural potential of mankind. The original Olympic Games, already shrouded in the mystique of its namesake Mount, became the natural model for idealizing sport. This linked the modern Games to their ancient forebears.

Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin is credited with launching the modern, international, Olympic Games, and the I.O.C. He believed that organized sport could promote moral and social strength; that through competition with a spirit of “athletic chivalry” young people could become both healthy and upstanding; and that democratic competition could promote understanding across cultures and peace among nations. He idealized the notion of combining physical, spiritual, and intellectual education exemplified historically in the Greek gymnasium and contemporaneously in the British public schools, influenced as they were in the early nineteenth century by Tom Arnold, who stressed moral principles, gentlemanly conduct, and intellectual achievement – in that order – which were to be developed by playing vigorous games, especially team games. This code of good sportsmanship emphasized well-roundedness and the notion that winning was less important than playing hard and fairly. This influence is clear in Coubertin’s words below,

The important thing in the Olympic games is not to win but to take part, the important thing in life is not to triumph but to struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. To spread these precepts is to build up a stronger and more valiant and, above all, more scrupulous and more generous humanity. Coubertin

Coubertin was a champion of competition among amateurs, not professionals, but rightly anticipated that the definition would evolve. The spirit of democratic competition, open to all, has since trumped the class distinctions that previously limited contests to the privileged few. This was aided by widespread acceptance of funding athletes’ training and reimbursing them for lost work during participation in the Games. By welcoming all comers, the Games could more legitimately produce the world’s best. This turn brings the Olympics into our own era.

Democratizing the Games turned the focus to establishing and standardizing rules for fair play. The rules about conditions, equipment, PEDs, and judges have become ever more finely tuned to maintain pace with technological advances and as athletes push the limits of the mind and body beyond what was previously imaginable. The Olympics have since become synonymous with fairly identifying the world’s best athletes, as measured by tangibles like distance, strength, speed, and head-to-head competition, and by the subjective evaluations of judges, especially when aesthetics are taken into consideration.

But what of the virtues that were once essential to victory and, arguably, the point of sports? So long as one plays by the rules and wins, do they matter? Even when one earns points for “style” does it matter if you’re a good sport, or a good person? Establishing fair play does not guarantee a spirit of fair play. If not on the field of play, the character of athletes may be judged by the ardor of their endorsements; and if not by their actual character, then by the artistic achievements of their PR team.


  • Haven Pell

    Bill Endicott is a college classmate who essentially made the US Canoe and Kayak Team happen many years ago. He was also a student of the Olympic movement and its history. As Dan points out, the Olympic games in Greece were far from amateur but Bill taught me that the prizes were kept out of sight. Win the wrestling and you’ll never lack for olive oil. But the monetary awards were not highlighted. Another thing i learned from Bill was that Baron de Coubertin did not care about amateurism himself but he knew that he would have to make the games amateur to get the English onside. The modern Olympics would not have been possible had England shown no interest.