Triumph of the Mind

One thing I found out during London 2012, is that when I have little spare time, the Olympics aren’t really interesting. I remember the days of my high-school and university life, when I would sit around the TV and watch swimming or judo for a whole day. I knew all the records of athletics, and could quote the medal count like the dollar exchange rate.

I still follow the Olympics, but from a distance. I mainly read headlines, and have watched live only the important sprint races and the pole vault (my personal favorite). I feel much of the charm has drawn off. Is it me who has grown up? Possibly, but I think this is only the outside reason. The Olympic Games have a strong myth supporting them (that is, a modern myth, of which the classic one is only a portion). We give them significance, and so they become important and intriguing.  This leads to enthusiasts who once in four years take interest in a sport they would deem esoteric in any other time. But, when the clock shows “Olympic Time”, the hype machine gets its wheels running. The media goes into hard-sell mode, the humongous opening ceremony gets everybody excited and the myth again takes life. This effect is then strengthened internally when people gather to sit for hours, watch and discuss the various sports – the social effect.

As I am writing these words, my friends are sitting in the living room and watching diving. None of them has any interest in the sport itself, but when it comes in the shiny Olympic package, it makes them yell excitedly and analyze somersaults. When I ask them about it, they always give me the same two answers: Firstly, these are athletes who dedicate themselves to achieve perfection in their field. Secondly, this is the ultimate test of mental strength – the ability to perform under pressure built up for four years.

The Olympic Games celebrate humanity’s triumph of body and will. What they neglect is the mind. It is no wonder that the Big Three of Olympics are swimming, gymnastics and athletics, while more popular sports like football, basketball and tennis stay in the background. This is the natural modern incarnation of the classic Olympics: contests which test the athlete’s physical traits, and his will power. Dedication is rewarded. A true Olympic hero is one who has for four years trained tirelessly, and molded his body into the ultimate tool for his sport.

These are impressive feats. The Olympians earn their admiration. However, despite the current surge in popularity, I think there is something these sports lack badly: rivalry. I do not mean that in the immediate sense – many of the great champions have a runner-up breathing down their necks. However, the main Olympic Sports are primarily individual. Despite the need to beat competitors’ results, a champion needs to perform the best he possibly can under his own terms. The main rival of a competitor is himself – there is no immediate interference.

This is vastly different from what I call “reactive sports”. These are sports where two (or more) rivals perform directly one against another, inhabiting the same field and acting simultaneously. These are ball games such as football and tennis, but the same can be said about martial arts of various sorts. These sportsmen have to dedicate their lives to training, work on their technique, be physically fit and perform under pressure. However, on top of all these difficulties, they have a much higher obstacle: a direct rival. Suddenly, game theory enters the stage. For any strength, an opponent can have a counter. Cunning and tactics are rewarded.

The classic Olympic sports have tactics to them as well (especially in long-distance races), but they are very limited. In the end, there is a very narrow scope of possible actions to choose from (mostly, how to distribute strength throughout the competition). In the reactive sports, the addition of a direct rival multiplies the possibilities, leading to an infinite set of states the game can reach. This complexity makes these sports much more interesting and intriguing in my opinion.

I believe that Pele, Jordan and Federer are greater sportsmen than Lewis, Strug and Phelps. The challenges they had to face were greater. The Olympians had to go through an everyday battle with themselves. The ball masters had to overcome that as well, and then face a rival whose sole purpose is to beat them. This is the ultimate achievement of sports.

The rules of football are such that game theory is emphasized, and it is one of the reasons I so love this game. Andres Iniesta, my favorite player, is slow and weak. There is no classic Olympic sport where he can dream of reaching the podium. Nevertheless, he is easily one of the three best football players in the last years. In football, the body is inferior to the mind, and I think that the latter is what should be celebrated as humanity’s greatest triumph.

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