LLR Books

Morningside prof sees beauty in ancient games reborn

Dr. Heather Reid lives and breathes the Olympics … philosophically speaking -- and literally, too, it seems.
The office of this Morningside College professor of philosophy (and department chair) has enough Olympic flags, statuary and photos to qualify as an adjunct to the Parthenon, and her home, she says, is equally Olympian in décor.
She is also an acknowledged expert of the ancient games and the philosophy of sports. She has attended the Olympic games in Los Angeles (1984), Salt Lake City (2002), Athens (2004), Torino (2006) and Beijing (2008). And while she missed the last couple games (London was way too expensive) and wasn’t enthused about going to Sochi this February, she has high hopes for Rio in 2016.
Reid was a serious athlete in her youth, trying out for the Olympic Games in cycling in 1984 when the sport was added to the games, then again in ’88, but she fell short both times, making the finals but not the team. In graduate school in 1989, she started studying ancient philosophy and saw a lot of connections between the ideas there, especially in Plato, and her own experiences as an athlete. Plato was also an athlete.
“He sort of thinks like an athlete, and he and I had this kind of common ground that gave me a leg up on understanding Plato … and Socrates,” she said. “I actually think Socrates’ Socratic Method (a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking) is an athletic way of seeking knowledge. As I grew, I developed these interpretations of the text that focused on athletics.”
Since then, Reid has written some books, like “Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World” and “The Introduction of Philosophy of Sport,” which have given her a reputation as an expert on the Olympics. She has also penned a number of scholarly articles on the subject – one that argues that gladiators were athletes to equal the better regarded Olympians of the time, contrary to the feeling that as slaves and servants they lacked the “virtue” necessary to be real athletes.
She recently co-authored "Aretism: An Ancient Sports Philosophy for the Modern Sports World."
What is so special about the Olympics anyway?
“As a philosopher,” Reid said, “I would say that the Olympic games are really special because they are a very philosophical approach to sports. They’re an attempt to use sport to promote a kind of philosophy.”
It is a philosophy that believes in human excellence and in being the best that we can be and in achieving excellence in an atmosphere of shared struggle, shared striving, she said. You have a community that is competitive but one that also produces friendship, a basic idea that we find in all areas of world, whether business, academia or whatever, she noted. It’s just the whole idea of people coming together from different places to compete in spite of their differences.
“There’s a kind of beauty in that that we don’t always see,” she said. “To some degree, we see it in sport every day, but there’s something special about the Olympics because they are specifically trying to do that … and do it with ritual, too, with the flames. There’s no advertising inside the arena. There is no advertising on the athletes’ uniforms. They’re trying to keep the commerce under control, and they’re kind of the last ones who keep trying to do that.”
As a writer, she has been very critical of the Olympic movement but it hasn’t dimmed her love for the games.
“I think we’re really blessed to have this event and have the interest in it we do. Maybe that’s the miracle, is that people are still interested in this, and not just in the ‘Miracle on Ice,’” she said, alluding to the 1980 USA men’s ice hockey victory over the supposedly invincible Russians.
There is also the idea, too, she said, that this phenomenon that brought people together in the ancient world, creating what we think of as Ancient Greece and its ideals like democracy, was brought back to life in 1896 in an attempt to resurrect the same ideals.
The ancient games started with all these diverse tribes and ended up with a great civilization, the games playing no small part in it. Then in the 1890s, when the modern games were born, different countries were facing globalization, with a world shrinking through trade and shipping and facing many of the same troubles that plagued the ancient Greeks.
“And we need to kind of use things like the Olympic Games to figure out how we’re going to handle this,” she said, “and are we going to be a just world in the future? So I think that how we handle the Olympic Games and how we treat each other, and especially how the privileged treat the less privileged in these contests, is a kind of canary in the coal mine … or a kind of spotlight in the future in thinking about experimenting how we’re going to hand globalization.  There’s more than sport going on there, and I think that it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
This legacy of bringing different tribes and peoples together at Olympia us credited with getting the Helenes to quit fighting each other and to united against the Persians. And it was the one time that people from all over the known world, including intellectuals, could gather together without risk of losing their heads. It became the center of intellectual and political dialogue and even peace treaties, Reid said. And failure to abide by these rules would bring the gods down upon you.
“So this is the legacy that Olympia holds is the minds of people like Pierre de Coubertin in the late 1890s when they were trying to revive the games,” she said. “And they’re actually in kind of a similar place because they’ve been having wars, fighting amongst each other, and there’s this idea that maybe if we create a festival like this, we can celebrate his common heritage and try to promote peace and co-existence among the people of the world.”
And it also made for a great event, the power of sport bringing diverse people together under conditions where everybody’s treated equally under the same rules in a sort of new world community.
It’s inspiring and idealistic where people are able to showcase the best of themselves, even if it is only for two weeks every four years, she said.