Is Sport Worth Dying For? Lessons From the Vancouver Olympics

The tragic death of the Georgian luge competitor, Nodar Kumaritashvili, just one day before Friday night’s Olympic Opening Ceremonies has raised many questions; not just about whether this particular track is too fast, but about whether Olympic sports are too dangerous.

To be sure, most modern sports at the Olympic level are decidedly dangerous; many of these high-speed winter events are wildly so. A cursory review of Greek athletic literature, from Archaic poetry and Classical prose to Pausanias, a famous second-century Roman traveler who wrote a long book entitled Guide to Greece (or better, A Greek Walkabout—it is still considered by many to be “the bible” of Greek archaeology), one thing seems clear: that the Greeks celebrated their Olympic contests in large part because of their danger. We moderns have become far more conflicted about the matter.

Pausanias relates the story of two boxers, Creugas and Damoxenos, who were competitors for the boxing crown at the Nemean Games, contests that at some point nearly rivaled the Olympic Games for their sacred aura.

The two men battled to a draw, and so it was agreed that each man would get one free shot at his opponent, to see if either one could be felled in such a way that victory might be declared. Creugas went first, and landed a blow to Damoxenos’s head. Doubtlessly addled (Pausanias does not describe the blow), Damoxenos requested that Creugas raise his hands from his sides, then landed a blow to his abdomen with an open hand, but with such force that he tore into the man’s midsection and disemboweled him on the spot.

The Nemean judges awarded Creugas the crown posthumously, but on a technicality; Damoxenos, they argued, had landed more than a single blow. Note that distinction: the judges objected to the number of blows, not to their violence. Pausanias, like most other Greeks, was much impressed by Panhellenic athletes who gave their lives for a crown. Most ancient Greek athletic sanctuaries were littered with monuments commemorating such untimely endings.

One way to frame the question raised by the tragic loss of any athlete’s life is to pose the question as I did in the title: are modern sports worth dying for?

But that is not exactly how the Greeks considered the matter. They possessed a frank awareness of the fact that their athletics mimicked the work of war, by and large—discus, javelin, boxing, wrestling, all-in combat, sprinting in full armor, etcetera. Many contestants, as well as some pilgrim-spectators, died at their Olympic Contests.

From the Greek perspective, the question was not really whether sports and fame were worth dying for. Clearly, the Greeks believed that they were, as the primordial Homeric myth of Achilles choosing a short life steeped in glory made plain. The question within the question, the one that the Greeks wished to bring to the surface of their moral and religious reflection, was what things were worth risking one’s life for.

On any short list of such things, one’s city, one’s honor, one’s lover, and one’s gods would enjoy a place pf prominence. The contests at Olympia were dedicated to Zeus, those at Nemea were dedicated to Poseidon, those at Delphi were dedicated to Apollo, and so on.

It is worth recalling and acknowledging that every culture has the forms of violence it sanctions, especially when that violence has a ritualized or a social dimension. The relation between violence and religion, between violence and art, between violence and sport, runs very deep indeed.

One of the striking things about the reaction to this most recent and profoundly saddening accident is the implicit idea that winter sports are not sports that many North Americans are willing to permit to turn violent or deadly. The Winter Olympics, a form of ritualized contests the ancient Greeks could scarcely have imagined, are supposed to be the lighter, and less serious, version of the Olympics; the staging of the Winter Opening Ceremonies confirms this. The really dangerous things are supposed to happen at the Summer Games.

In the United States, most spectators may not deem the luge worth such fatal risk-taking, but that does not go for all sports. Indeed, we do tolerate the possibility of violent collisions, career-ending injuries (and even life-ending ones) in American-style football, or boxing.

One of my worries about the questions swirling around this accident—especially the question of “whether it was worth it”— is that they carry the unintended consequence of demeaning the many sacrifices of this athlete prior to the last. We cannot presume to know whether “he died doing what he loved most,” but we can certainly be confident of the time and energy he committed to the pursuit of an Olympic dream.

In recent years, we seem to have been forced continually to return to some form of this question: what things are worth the risk, if not the warrant, of violence?

As several wars proceed in a way that renders them the longest in our nation’s history, it is increasingly clear that we deem defending the nation and its honor as one thing worth the risking of human life.

And on all sides of these global conflicts, religion seems to provide such a warrant as well. The Greek Panhellenic Games, we should recall, were religious contests, each sanctioned by an Olympian god.

The word I have used above is ‘sacrifice,’ and that may be the word we need in order to make sense of such tragedies as the one that occurred in Vancouver. Things worth risking one’s life for are things deemed sacred, things worthy of sacrifice. We sacrifice our energy, our time, our physical comfort, and in some rare instances, our lives to such sacred significance. The ancient Greek athletes understood everything they did at Olympia—the training, the oath-taking, the sacred meal, the physical exertion, the risk of harm and even of death—to be sacrifices rendered to the gods.

The athlete himself was such a sacrifice. As Pindar’s victory songs make clear, from the Archaic Greek standpoint, the gods are very large and we are very small; the light of Olympia makes us shine and loom larger, but only for a day. The contests were ultimately choreographed as lessons in finitude, in mortality; for victor and vanquished alike.

Sport just is sacrifice. So is religion. So is love. And what is a Valentine’s heart pierced by an arrow, if not a symbol of this same strange and sacred idea?