Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

An Olympic Philosophy of Life

The values and aims of Olympism

The Olympics may be the only sports movement that is explicitly guided by a philosophy of life, known as Olympism. This is due in part to the fact that both philosophy and the Olympics originated in ancient Greece, the stomping ground of Socrates and Plato. Plato himself was a championship caliber wrestler, and believed that a period of physical training was important in developing as a philosopher and leader. It makes sense, given their shared origins, that the Olympic movement would have a philosophical component.

The Fundamental Principles of Olympism include elements related to both personal and social ethics:

Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

An Olympic philosophy of life recognizes and urges respect for ethical principles that apply to all people, across time, place, culture, and religion. Values such as friendship, fairness, and solidarity are among these values, and are explicitly mentioned in the Olympic Charter.

The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

The ultimate end or goal of Olympic sport is not fame, fortune, or even victory. Rather, it is the development of individuals and the fostering of harmony in society. It will be interesting to see how much this element of Olympism is present in the London Games, given our current focus on the medal counts and record-breaking performances. These are of course important, but what must be remembered and appreciated is that the Games are more than medal counts and records, they are also about individual excellence and social harmony. At least they are meant to serve these ends alongside the excellent athletic performances we will witness.

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit.

The Games are meant to be free of discrimination of any kind, including but not limited to race, politics, gender, and religion. This is a time when much of the world comes together to witness not only amazing gold medal performances, but also the exemplification of the Olympic Creed:

"The most important thing is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well."

These are high ideals, and the cynic (or the realist?) may scoff at how much these are actually in play. But it is nevertheless the case that part of what attracts us to the Games is that they do, at least some of the time, embody these high aspirations. Let the Games begin!

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If you're interested in reading more about the philosophy of the Olympics, see my latest book co-edited with former Olympic Trials cyclist and philosopher of sport Heather Reid: The Olympics and Philosophy.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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