Sport teaches passion and practical wisdom – but only to those who take part

ACCORDING to one tradition that has come down to us from antiquity, the Greek philosopher Plato was also a victor at the ancient Olympic Games – for wrestling. Another anecdote adds that his real name was Aristocles. “Plato”, as we know him today, is just a nickname referring to his broad, well-muscled shoulders.

That the founding father of Western philosophy was also a gold-medallist called “the hunk” ought to be better known. As I discussed in my column last week, the connection between sporting endeavour and cultural achievement runs deep in our civilisation’s history. Only recently have the two been split apart.

I say this, I must add, as an incompetent athlete. Neither long-limbed enough for the sprint nor graceful enough for the pommel horse, physical excellence is only something I am ever likely to approach by getting a ticket for an event like the Olympics. Suggesting that flights of mental gymnastics ought to go hand in hand with the literal kind does me no favours.

And yet I write this column from a valley in the Austrian Alps, where, instead of attending the Games, I am spending my summer break trying not to get too out-of-breath hiking through the pine forests. Excellence matters, but some activities are important enough to be worth doing badly. “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” wrote Voltaire – the best is the enemy of the good – and sharing the achievements of Usain Bolt from an armchair would be no substitute to striving for mere competence myself as an amateur.

Physical education, since the time of the ancient Greeks, has always been central to a liberal education. At the twin campuses of St John’s College in America, which specialise in a modern version of that liberal ideal, the emphasis is on as many students as possible taking part, educating their bodies alongside their minds. Roger H. Martin writes in Racing Odysseus, his account of his time at St John’s as a mature student, “skill and previous experience are not required here… only thumos. Passion. … Everyone who shows up will be on the team.”

Why does sport matter so much? It’s a question my teenage self used to ask on a weekly basis, after yet another cross-country slog through Epping Forest. The ancients spoke, as public schoolmasters still do today, of its role in building character, or practical wisdom. To be able, with grace and ease, to act wisely, rather than merely to appreciate the wisdom of others, is essential for the sort of life of action that the City, for example, demands. We all need well-educated bodies, not just minds; we cannot cheer on our own lives from the sidelines.

Of course, sport is nothing without its brightest stars. But these two weeks of heroic action in Stratford will leave a poor legacy if the nation imagines that sport is only for the gifted. I am a bad boulderer, a cackhanded kayaker and a half-baked hiker. But I have no intention of leaving these pursuits to their champions.

First published: City A.M., 10/8/12

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Filed under Human nature, Liberal education, Olympics

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