A Very Modern Decathlon: Who Would Win the ‘Whole Person’ Olympic Gold?

by , under Arts, Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Science, Sport


One of the things I liked about Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons is the journey that one of the main characters, Jojo, takes, from ‘dumb college jock’ to athletic student of philosophy. It’s an arc that’s not that uncommon: the pursuit of excellence in sport requires careful reflection on the self; top athletes need to be psychologically mature, at least in a certain narrow way.

But it’s not a common path – and is even far less common the other way: I rarely meet serious thinkers who follow sport seriously – which is where part of the humour of the above video comes from. Perhaps it goes back to some trauma at school of being picked last in playground games – the caricature of the meek and wan philosopher who shuns the physical world for the metaphysical… Yet at this olympics we clearly have some bright sparks: the gold medal winning boat of Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins has both studying for PhDs – one in criminology, the other in mathematics.

I love the fact that Plato was a wrestler as well as philosopher: he refused to separate out the physical and intellectual. And thinking about this while watching Jess Ennis going through her heptathlon made me think: who might win gold medal in the ‘whole person Olympiad’?

Wouldn’t it be brilliant to have a very modern decathlon made up of sport, science, mathematics, literature, art, economics, history and philosophy? The poplin shirts of Alain de Botton would surely get pulped in a boxing bout with Nigel Warburton. Clearly Grainger and Watkins have to be leading contenders for starters… but who else could give them a run? Can’t see Richard Dawkins doing much in stadium, or Usain Bolt doing much to trouble the scorers in epistemology  – though I may be wrong.

We have our great athletes and top public intellectuals… but who would win in an event mixing both? It’d be brilliant fun finding out…


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