Faster, higher, stronger – the well-known Olympic motto has been in use for 90 years, and exemplifies the spirit of the Olympic games. With the recent winter games now fresh in our memories, perhaps it is a good time to reflect on what sport means to us in the broader context of society, and whether it still has a place.

“Faster, higher, and stronger” seem to our modern society to be rather outmoded in any context outside of sport. With planetary boundaries closing in on us, “smaller, lighter, and more efficiently” might seem more appropriate values to live by, consigning faster, higher, and stronger to the world of sporting entertainment. Indeed, the time, energy, and resources we spend on sport seem especially out-of-place on a planet that now reaches ‘overshoot day’ as early as 20 August, like in 2013.

As a former elite athlete myself, and having trained for the Olympics, I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that the ecological footprint of athletes is far greater than that of ordinary folk. We eat a lot more, we consume other resources at a greater rate, and in sports like speed skating, the energy expenditure on refrigeration of the ice is staggering. Moreover, we contribute nothing to society other than entertainment every four years.

The reason we consume a lot more is because we operate on a different paradigm to the mainstream. The mainstream way of allocating resources is determined by pareto efficiency and profit maximisation – that is improving the allocation to as many people as possible, until any further improvement makes one person worse-off, and profit maximisation, everyone is familiar with. Resources are allocated to a cause until the marginal cost of the spending, exceeds the marginal gains from that spending.

In high performance sport, things are very different. We will generally continue to throw resources at an outcome, even when the rate of return decreases significantly. Why? It’s simple – even though it may not make sense to invest a lot of resources into something that only gains a hundredth of a second, if that hundredth wins you an Olympic gold medal, then there really is no ceiling to how much an athlete is willing to spend. (For example, the gold medal in the men’s 1500m in speed skating at the Sochi games was decided by three thousandths of a second).

Sport can also be problematic because it is such a distraction. I don’t know too many people who can name the leaders of all of the G20 countries (or even half of them), but I know more than a few who, after only paying attention to as obscure a sport as speed skating once every four years, can tell me the names of all the medallists.

It makes no sense. Sport makes no sense. It is an escape from reality that somehow takes more importance in most people’s minds than reality itself. Perhaps that makes it dangerous, but I take a different view. Sport is that easily-relatable uncle who you trusted to “tell it as it is”. In sport, a cheat is a cheat, and is punished accordingly, and even then continues to invite the vilification of peers and spectators. In reality, a cheat may lose his job, but still gets to keep the spoils of his crimes (bonuses), or he may lose his seat in public office, but continue to reap the benefits of his connections.

The rules in sport are recognised as being there to ensure fairness and enjoyment for all, whereas all too often in reality the rules are seen as obstacles. A violation of the rules in sport is often seen as a sleight against the system itself, and all who are a part of it (who often take it quite personally), while the same is only true in real life in the most exceptional of cases – you’ve probably felt personally offended by the transgressions of a murderer, but what about a dodgy used-car salesman?

Indeed, this emotional connection that people feel to sport is most puzzling. A stranger, who you’ve never met, who happens to be from the same country as you, jumps a few centimetres higher than another stranger from another country, and somehow that elicits a sense of national pride? And while it is true that many people feel a sense of national pride in some of a country’s industries (e.g. Swiss watches, German cars, etc.) nothing quite as much brings people together in the way that sports do. I cheered when the prime minister of my country signed the Kyoto protocol – but I’m pretty sure that I was in the minority.

So what are we to make of this? In a world so corrupt that Wall Street bankers ruin the lives of billions around the world and walk off scott free, and where underhanded deals by Russian mafia made these previous Olympics the most expensive games ever – more than any previous summer games, and more than 20 times what it costs to send a spaceship to Mars – what can we possibly gain from our obsession with sport?

As it is in everything in life, it’s about the connections that we make. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying sports, as long as we realise what it is – a completely made-up, artificial construct of objectives and rules which have pushed (some of) us to our physical boundaries, and which have tested the limits of what we believe to be humanly possible. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s also something that everyone can, and should learn from. It teaches us that there is more to life than the cold calculus of efficient resource allocation and profit maximisation, it may be one of the only significant examples in life where cheaters really don’t win, and its intrinsic values of fairness are something we should all keep in mind.

So I encourage you to see through all the commercialism, and the corruption, and the ways in which less-than-savoury characters try to leverage the insanely public platform of the Olympics for their own selfish gains. To ignore all the controversy, and all the missteps, and all the scandal, to see the bare bones of what sport really is. I’m not sure what Pierre de Coubertin would make of the Sochi games and the controversy that surrounds it, but as an athlete, the essentials of the Olympic movement have survived, even if they continually risk being overshadowed by those who wish to take advantage of it.

In the end, understanding the lessons of sport, and taking them into our lives, in this nasty real world and all that we’ve allowed it to become, may be our only chance out of this mess. Sport as a microcosm for life may be the only way for the common man to understand the effects of the climate, or the concept of limited resources (ask any athlete at the end of a marathon, and they’ll tell you all about sustainable pace, and limited resources). Maybe what makes sport so valuable is that it is so relatable (because sending links to friends for peer-reviewed scientific papers to argue against climate change denial really isn’t cutting it). Perhaps it is appropriate to end with a quote from a good friend of mine, generated after a lively discussion on the value of the Olympics to society:

“Sport is important because it should, but doesn’t, remind us that there are more important things than sport.”
~ Daniel V. Mathews