Episode 11: Olympics

With the 2018 Olympics approaching, we're talking with faculty expert Dave Lunt. Dr. Lunt specializes in Greek History and Olympic/athletic history and teaches in the History, Sociology, and Anthropology Department.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hello again, everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring President Scott L Wyatt of Southern Utah University. I'm Steve Meredith, your host, and I'm joined as usual by President Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve.

Meredith: Today we're going to talk a little bit about the upcoming Winter Olympics, and we're going to do so with an expert in the field. Dr. Dave Lunt is from our History Department and has a specialty in Greek history and also in Olympic and athletic history, and so I'll let you further introduce Dave and we'll talk about this very, very interesting and timely subject.

Wyatt: So this is one of the real fun pieces of being on a university campus every day is that you've got some of the most fascinating people that have studied the most interesting things. And some days I wish I could just abandon my job and just wander around and talk to faculty members. [Laughs] Because there's so much…there is so much to learn. And I think that I should be setting an example about learning instead of just sitting in my office working all the time. [Laughs] Anyway, so we are right on the edge of the Olympics and Dr. Lunt, this is one of your areas. This is your specialty. Why don't you start us out by telling us how the Olympics began?

Dave Lunt: I'd be happy to! Good morning Steve, good morning President Wyatt. The Olympics began historically, you know. The classical date is 776 B.C. A guy named Hippias of Elis in ancient Greek came up with that number, although he didn't use B.C. But he tried to add up all of the ancient athletics championships and figure out how many Olympiads there had been. The archeology in Olympia suggests a much later date, around 600 B.C. is when the games really got going. But either way, whether it's 776 or 600 something, it's a long run, right? The Olympics started out small. They were always a festival to Zeus worshiping the big chief Mount Olympus deity, and the games were an appendage to this bigger, religious festival. And over time, the games got more popular sort of like what we've seen today with the modern Olympic movement—the games grow bigger and bigger and they add more and more events and more and more places where people can celebrate, you know, games to Zeus or games to Apollo or games to Poseidon and over time, they gained great cultural relevance and value and victors were honored in their cities and they got big awards and memories and statues and all sorts of glory sort of heaped upon them. So from about 600 B.C. is our latest date, maybe even earlier, they were going every four years at Olympia and then at other places every single year and they wrap up in the for-century of the A.D., or Common Era. There's an Emperor of Rome, Theodosius, who decides that it's probably not a good idea for a Christian empire to be holding festivals to the Pagan gods and so he orders all the temples, all the games, all the festivals to be closed down and shut down and that's the end of the Olympic movement. But it had about a thousand year run where it was a big deal. It made it through wars and upheavals and earthquakes and the Roman conquest and all sorts of stuff but the Olympics remained relatively stable in terms of on an institution that lasts for a thousand years. I have a hard time thinking of something that lasted a thousand years that's still around today with relatively few interruptions.

Wyatt: A thousand years, same festival. Same people's…that is really pretty amazing.

Lunt: Yeah. They do open it up to Romans. Originally only Greeks can compete in the Olympic Games. Today the Olympics are all about inclusivity, right, for all peoples all over the earth but the Greeks, the Olympics games were for the Greeks. Eventually the Romans can come in when Rome conquers Greece. But the Greeks, they have a very strong sense of identity with their city, where they're from, not their bigger ethnicity I guess you could say—their homeland or their country—they believe in their city. And so in that sense, they very much are international in the Greek sense because they're from different cities that are all independent countries, fiercely independent, and we see some of the rivalries play out that you might anticipate among, you know, city states that are in contention for power or economic resources or, you know, whatever the issues of the day were. But yeah, it was basically the Greeks; men only could attend or watch. There are a couple of exceptions where certain women in Priestess of Demeter could come and watch, but generally speaking, men only. It was for males. Boys and men could compete and watch at Olympia. Although anybody could come to the big sacrifices and stuff, but the games were reserved for men, males.

Wyatt: Was this kind of like high school rivalries?

Lunt: Um, it would be kind of like high school rivalries. You know, we have our local high school rivalry here, or I grew up in a high school with a rival, but I think it would be a little more intense because the stakes were high. They are in the sense of close together proximity. We think of Athens and Sparta being big rivals in war in the fifth century B.C. but really it's Argos and Sparta. Those guys cannot stand each other, and as the crow flies, they're pretty close together.

Wyatt: They're close communities, they know each other, they fought…there's a lot of ego on the line.

Lunt: Absolutely.

Meredith: Do we know a lot about—I mean, you see ancient sculptures of discus and javelin—do we know a lot of went on in terms of actual sports they competed in?

Lunt: That's a perfect question, Steve. It's like your artistic background is showing through there because in the nineteenth century when the Europeans were trying to revive the Olympic Games, we do have a list of events that were competed in, and like I said, over time they grew and occasionally an event didn't work and so they cut it out and they would tinker with the program. But something like the discus was part of a bigger program called the Pentathlon—The Five Contest event. It would be running and throwing the javelin and long jumping and discuss and there was wrestling in there too—those are the five events—and in modern times, at least this is what I've read, there was no discus until people wanted to revive what the Greeks were doing, and we have sculptures and paintings, but there's this very famous sculpture. The original is gone but the Discobolus of Myron, they show it at the Olympics all the time. The naked athlete with his hand on his knee and the discus kind of cocked behind him. And so modern Europeans, by modern I mean nineteenth century, they looked at that statue and they said, "We should do that." And they tried to figure out how to do this sport based on these pictures. And so we're not sure that what we're doing with the discus is the same as what the ancient Greeks were. Other things are a little different too. Like the javelin—they used a little leather strap to help with accuracy, which makes sense in a time period where you would throw spears as part of your warfare, but accuracy mattered not just distance. And the discus in myth anyway is a dangerous. There are all sorts of stories of people getting hit in the head with a discus and all shenanigans ensue so…we think we know most of the program. There's running events, various distances, the ancient Greek Stad or Stadion is the Latinized form, stadium I guess, it's about 180 yard for our measurements—that's almost two football fields I guess—and that would be the running distances. You'd be one length, two lengths, a long distance, I guess several lengths (24 lengths or something like that). There would be wrestling and boxing. There was a combat sport called Pankration—this is a…the world means "all powerful" and it suggests …I guess like "no holds" barred fighting I guess what we might call, you know, UFC or MMA or something like this.

Meredith: The octagon of death?

Lunt: Yeah, but there are no rounds, there's no timers, there's no weight classes. So it's…you know, there's boys and men, but when you leave being a boy to becoming a man is a…you know that's for the judges to decide. There's no birth certificates or DNA testing or drug testing. And so these guys, some of the stores that we hear of these heavy event athletes—these boxers and pankrations—they're monsters. They're monster humans who fight for a living. This idea of amateurism, this is a modern one. The ancient Greeks, this is their job. They would go in there and battle until someone gave up or something was unconscious or, in wrestling, until you threw your opponent. So the other…I'll keep going here…the other event or big category of events would be the equestrian events. And this is…you know, we do have equestrian stuff at the Olympics today but it's, you know, dressage or sort or judged events or jumping over little obstacles but this was horse racing, and the Greeks loved this. We don't have any evidence for gambling, but I suspect there was a lot of that going on, [all laugh], at least informally. But the horse racing was a big part of it and the winner of the horse race would be the owner of the horses, not the driver of the chariot or the horse. There was a horse race or a two horse chariot, four horse chariot or whatever, but this was among the most prestigious of the events because it took a lot of money. I guess like today, horse racing is the sport of kings, and in ancient Greek times, the horse racing events were very, very popular. And this is the one event that was open to women because as the owner of the horses, you don't actually have to attend. So we have a couple of records of women who win Olympic championships in chariot racing but didn't even show up to watch, weren't allowed to show up.

Wyatt: So chariot racing was one of the events?

Lunt: Yeah, different kind of chariots. Two horse chariots, four horse chariots, for a while there's a donkey cart event but apparently that wasn't as popular. Not in Olympia, but in other places there was an event that I always think sounds kind of fun where they would—this is at Athens—but they would ride their horses and then the jockeys had to get off and run next to their horses for a distance and then get back on. So it wasn't just riding, you had to be kind of quick too. All sorts of creative activities I guess to see what kind of other events they could come up with all of rate honor of Zeus.

Wyatt: It'd be fun to see these chariot races come back.

Lunt: I would love that.

Wyatt: Those are powerful kinds of races. They just…at least when Cecil B. DeMille puts it on it looks pretty cool.

Lunt: Yeah, they're great TV. Even if you watch some of the trotters today, they're exciting. And there's always the potential for mayhem, which I think unfortunately, or fortunately maybe, people might get hurt and that draws people's eyeballs too.

Wyatt: Yeah, I have friends that are chariot racers.

Lunt: Really?

Wyatt: Yeah. One guy that I used to work with does a lot of chariot racing.

Meredith: Really?

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, so this thing goes away—it goes away because it's inappropriate in a Christian world to be doing these things in honor of Pagan gods—how does it start back up?

Lunt: So there's a couple of…I guess we'll say "false starts" where people have the idea. It's not like the Olympic Games are lost to history. There's a guy named Zappas who tries to revive the Olympic Games in Greece in the 1800s. Greece is dominated or controlled or however we want to call this, occupied, by the Ottoman Turks for several hundred years. But in the 1800s—1829 I guess is when we'll call the Greek Independence—Greece asserts its independence, wins a war, and they're searching around for an identity. Greece has never been a unified country, even in ancient times, each city was a rival with each other. And so some of these early Greeks tried to…these early Olympic Games are an attempt to try to unify the Greeks in a sense of, "We're all doing this together." The Zappas Olympics, as they're called, they don't really work. They don't really take off. It's not until a Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin, and there's some others involved too from England, but he is enamored of the English education system that emphasizes physical education that's coming out of the second half of the nineteenth century and some of the fears of industrialization, some of the worries about young men growing up soft and "What are we going to do with our…how are we going to train aristocratic leaders?" And in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War that goes very badly for France, Pierre de Coubertin says, "We need to figure out a better way to train our young people to be better leaders and better prepared for war and maybe we can diffuse future international problems." And so this brain child—I said it's not just Coubertin but he gets most of the credit—but in 1896 the first modern Olympic Games are held in Athens and they're supposed to be a revival of the Olympic spirit, which right away you have to go, "Well, Olympia is a place, it's not an adjective". They're the "Athenian games" in Athens, but that's not what it's about. By modern times, we've transformed this notion of what "Olympic" means. It's not just a place, but it has to do with these set of ideals that are largely rooted in nineteenth century interpretations of ancient Greece. And so the nineteenth century had the strong belief in the aristocratic privilege—that young men especially are supposed to be leaders in the aristocratic ranks, and they're supposed to learn how to solve problems and command others and otherwise engage in diplomacy. And so the modern Olympics are viewed as a way of training young people, young men, to meet young people from other countries and maybe down the road that will prevent a war or help diplomacy or otherwise inculcate correct values about beauty and the spirit of camaraderie and "competition is good". But in the sense of it being a sort of wholesome activity, "win at all costs" is not part of the modern Olympic movement in the 1800s. It's about competing nobly and winning and having good sportsmanship and respecting your rival. These are the ideals, and they sound pretty good. [All laugh] But that's not how it worked out, right? And also in the early Olympics there is a strong commitment—by early Olympics I mean the early modern—there is a strong commitment to artistic values too. So beauty, not just sport, is one of the sort of fundamental principles of Olympism. And there was a Olympic art contest and you could win an Olympic gold medal for producing a work of art up until the nineteen…well let's say 1930s I think is the last time, around the time of Los Angeles is when that was discontinued. So it was supposed to be intriguing, teaching people a more wholesome, well rounded approach. But fairly early on, that gets derailed by people who…

Wyatt: Competition.

Lunt: Yeah, you want to win, right? It's hard to compete without trying.

Wyatt: So the first Olympics, 1896, when did we start with Winter Olympics?

Lunt: The first Winter Olympics—the official name is the Olympic Winter Games.

Wyatt: The Olympic Winter Games.

Lunt: I'm not correcting you, but you might hear this referred to if you watch it on television or read reports on this. In 1924—or in the years leading put to the 1924 Olympics which were held in Paris—there's a strong desire that people are saying, "Hey, let's get some other sports involved." France has a really strong winter sport history, right? It has the Alps and countries of Sweden and Norway are saying, "Yeah, well skiing and skating…that's sort of our bread and butter and we can't really do that in the summertime in Paris." And so the decision is made to sort of create this Week of Winter Sports is what they start calling it as early as 1921 or 1922 in their meetings. They're going to plan out more sports. And this is something, I don't know, maybe it's less interesting, but in the early Olympic period - - the Olympics have not always been this big money making venture for two and half weeks of immense pageantry. Something like the 1904 games in St. Louis, they lasted all summer. People kind of coming and going, people couldn't travel as well. You would have some events in the early summer, others in the late summer. It was much more of a sort of drawn out affair rather than just the Olympics. They weren't big money makers. They didn't have tourists. They obviously didn't have television or radio in these early Olympic periods. And so the first few Olympics after 1896 were held in conjunction with World's Fairs and the World's Fairs would go all summer to. So in 1924 they're saying for the 1924, they want to have these other sports on display. And this is…I was reading some of the IOC minutes earlier getting ready for this and this one made me laugh because one of the representatives to the International Olympic Committee from Great Britain said, "You know what would be great to do during this Week of Winter Sports is we should have soccer—a soccer competition." You know, he's calling it football, right? "Because no one wants to play soccer in the middle of July." [All laugh] And it just shows how open-minded they are about…you know there's no sense of "we're only skiing and sledding and skating." But that's how it ended up in 1924. The…Chamonix in France, there was the appendage to the games of the 1924 Olympics. The Olympic Winter Games. And then fairly soon after they said, "These need to be their own thing and have their own sort of separate venue because there aren't very many countries that could host both kinds of things." So 1924 was the first I guess we'll say Olympic Winter Games and it should be obvious I hope that they don't have winter games in ancient times. This is purely a modern convention.

Wyatt: So that's been going on less than a hundred years? In the modern?

Lunt: Yeah, absolutely. It was eighty something years by now, ninety maybe?

Wyatt: So what are some…let's fast forward. It's tempting to jump through all the really, really interesting times. In my life, the most memorable Olympics was the 1980 Miracle on Ice. That was something. And I was a first year college student when that happened. But let's jump…

Meredith: Politically so important in that time in the United States.

Wyatt: Yeah. And then there's been a lot of really interesting books come out about the Olympics leading up to World War II. The Boys in the Boat is one that I just recently read that was fun to read. So there's been a lot of really interesting times, hasn't there?

Lunt: Absolutely. You're older than you look, President Wyatt if you remember 1980. Bravo.

Wyatt: Yeah, I remember that.

Meredith: Unfortunately very clearly. [All laugh]

Lunt: I was alive, but I didn't watch on TV. I was too young but…

Wyatt: Well, this is a podcast, so you can't see my grey hair and your brown hair. [All laugh]

Lunt: But from the…even going back to ancient Greece, this idea of international rivalry is a strong part of what the modern Olympics is about. And so as you mentioned the build up to World War II, probably the most written about—and this is anecdotal, I can't back this up—but just in terms of looking through the literature, the most written about modern Olympic games are the 1936 games in Germany, in Berlin, that sort of showed off, they were a feature showcase for Adolf Hitler's regime. And most famously from the American point of view is the triumph of Jesse Owens.

Wyatt: Right.

Lunt: This non-Aryan. This African American who runs circles around the master race theory is how I say it. Literally running in circles as he does laps around the field. And there's been more recently, more sort of introspection in the United States looking back on that because Owens came home and was met with Jim Crow segregation and some of the problems there too. So in some ways, he's a pioneer for the Olympic movement and in other ways he's a little too early to really benefit from his success. But the Berlin games are a big political platform for the Nazi program. It's also the first games with closed-circuit television which is sort of an interesting development as the games were growing more popular. After World War II when television takes off, the games are going to become more accessible to people throughout the world. But the 1980 games, the Miracle on Ice, this is the American ammeters, the college players vs. the big mean Soviet…

Wyatt: Professional team…

Lunt:…professional team. This is how the narrative is cast and there's something to it. So one of the fundamental benchmarks or foundational ideas of nineteenth and early 20th—well I guess we'll say most of the 20th century—Olympism is this concept of amateurism where it's good to be good at sports, it's bad to be really good at sports because that means you're taking other things too seriously. And we see this, this still plays out in college campuses or high schools or whatever, there's other places where amateurism is around. But in the Olympic ideal, you're supposed to not get paid. You're supposed to not be earning a living, but of course everybody's earning a living. But this is why until the 1990s—and it depends on the sport—but the big breakthrough is the 1990s in Barcelona when the Americans send their professional basketball players to Barcelona. The "Dream Team". So in 1980 we still have this concept of American college players, but in the Soviet Union, it's a little bit different. They don't have this sort of college system. And we're seeing this as well with the way China trains its athletes, and I suppose North Korea although I don't know too much about their programs. I don't know if anyone knows how they do it, but this idea of the state sort of "Hoovering" up huge numbers of young people and training them to pluck out the one virtuoso…it sort of flies in the face of what Olympism is supposed to be about. Of producing a well rounded individual. But on the other hand, countries stand to gain a lot of international reputation or they want to flex their muscles, metaphorically speaking, or maybe physically speaking. Or they want to show off the superiority of their system, economic or political systems. And so the Americans do this too, but the Soviet system is unique in that the Olympic committee—the international Olympic committee—has these long discussions about, "Is the Soviet system really amateurism?" Because they're living in barracks so to speak or common housing. And they're not paid, but none of these communists are paid. How does communism work with Olympism? And so this is a more philosophical question, but yeah, that's why the Miracle on Ice was such a big deal. It's this idea of the American democratic ideal. And especially, it's in New York right? Lake Placid is where this takes place. And the Soviets representing the sort of height of the Cold War and the trained…

Wyatt: The trained military athletes.

Lunt: Exactly. Versus these fresh-faced college amateurs. And the Americans win and it is an unlikely victory. It's an amazing victory. Most people don't remember that that was not the championship game.

Meredith: Yeah. [All laugh] XXX 26:14

Lunt: And they still had to go out and win another game which would have changed the story considerably if they had had a hangover from that. But they didn't. They took care of business and it's a great American story. It's a great Olympic story that we see sort of replicated time and again that you sort of take pride of your country's achievement there.

Wyatt: Yeah. And so fast-forward 'till today on Russia. This is an interesting story for the Olympics we're going to see next month.

Lunt: So this is still a developing story. One of the more amazing developments that I've watched since I've started studying Olympic stuff for about fifteen years now. But the international Olympic committee has sort of rescinded—I can't remember the exact terminology—but they've reminded their recognition of the Russian Organizing Committee. The national—like the USOC, the United States Olympic Committee—the Russian version of this is not able to participate in anything related to the Olympics. And this stems from the revelation that four years ago at Sochi, the Russian government and organizing committee, Olympic committee, all these…the Russian officials engaged in—and this is the story coming out—that they engaged in wholesale cheating to benefit Russian athletes. There's this big expose, a couple of Russians have come clean and shown the evidence and they've been whisked away to some version of witness protection. But the Russians were literally breaking in at night to the laboratories through a back wall and passing the samples that the athletes would have to provide and doctoring the samples. Not necessarily replacing them, but doctoring them with things like Nescafe which is like instant coffee or salt or something. And so when they would run the test, the test would say, "There's no chemical in here." But then they ran these beta tests, these secondary tests when these allegations came out, and they said, "This person's urine has so much salt in it that he or she should be dead. They've obviously been tampered with." And it took government involvement to circumvent the safeguards that are in place and as a punishment, the entire sort of official apparatus of Russia has been disallowed. Which is unbelievable to me. I mean it's believable because it happened, but it's…there's really no precedent for a country this big to be booted from Olympic competition. And there is a loophole for individual Russian athletes who can petition and demonstrate that they have not been cheating or taking performance enhancing drugs and they can go before a committee and sort of certify. Some of these will be able to compete in upcoming Olympic competitions, but they won't be able to represent their country. They'll be sort of wearing…I don't know what yet. Some kind of neutral or Olympic colors or something.

Wyatt: They're free agents.

Lunt: Yeah, free agents. There's a growing—I don't know if it's growing—but there's a movement. It's been around for a little while advocating that athletes should represent themselves and not countries. They shouldn't actually wear the flag of their country, they should just wear plain uniforms or maybe the Olympic rings or something as a way of diffusing nationalist rivalries. It sounds good, but it's also…I don't know if changing the uniform is going to really change people's perception. The ancient Greeks, same thing. They had rivalries for their city-states. One group…clearly you would root for your person, and they're not wearing uniforms, they're competing in the nude. So I don't know if changing the uniform is going to make much of a difference. But this Russia thing is…this will be an interesting storyline to see how this unfolds in the upcoming games here in South Korea.

Wyatt: So this really is an interesting question about the goals and the ideals of Olympics, is that you've got the element of cheating. You've got the element of one of the goals of the Olympics is to bring nations together and now this is becoming a divisive thing, not a bringing together. What do you think the story is going to be after all this is run?

Lunt: Oh, the future. [Laughs]

Wyatt: Come on historian, predict the future. [All laugh]

Lunt: It freaks me out, right? It's against all of my instincts. The story coming out of this is going to be like other Olympics I think. People are going to root for the storylines. The personal interests are strong and powerful. And the goals of Olympism, they remain noble. The big problem—and this is not my original thought, this is identified in the early 50s and 60s as television dollars got involved and then in the 80s as sponsorships took off and the Olympics actually became profitable, maybe not for the host cities but because profitable for the sponsors—and the big problem is, "How do you have an ammeter competition that you are selling tickets to and sponsorships and commercials and hats?" This is a fundamental conflict that I don't see us solving anytime soon. But the personal interest stories will take off. It's a big deal to me that the North Koreans are going to go. They're going to see South Korea and they're going to step foot in this sort of territory they pretend doesn't exist or is theirs or however they view it. That's a big step. And the world doesn't really know what that's going to look like. The Russia thing? The Russian athletes will…they'll compete hard. They're good athletes. They've worked hard for this. And if they're clean—and it's naive to think that only the Russians are cheating—but the reason that they've been hit so hard is their country was helping them cheat. And I don't know. This fundamental idea of "You should win, you should not win." I don't know how to reconcile it. I'm a…I'm mixed on the Olympics personally. I mean, I'm a little bit of a cynic when I see the money involved and the expense to host cities and sort of the way that the big facilities fall into disrepair quickly and how ordinary can't afford tickets and all of this stuff…and in 2012 I was in Athens and the Olympic torch was being passed to Great Britain to take to London for the Olympic games it was coming out of Greece. And I just happened to be there and I went over to the Panathenaic Stadium, the 1896 stadium where it happened and I said, "Oh I'll watch this." And it was pouring rain and it was spring or early summer, it was late May, and it was not cold but it was kind of a miserable day in the rain and the cold and the marble was cold and slippery. And I'm thinking, "So the Olympics are so cheesy and it's all this fanfare and event, and all these people dressed as ancient Greeks…" and it was really kind of cheesy. And then the Olympic torch shows up, the rain stops, the sun comes out, a giant rainbow emerges, and I think, "Oh my gosh, this is awesome." [All laugh] So I have a hard time saying anything bad. The Olympics are compelling. People will watch and the great…the winners, the great human interest winning stories, that seems to be the key. You've got to win for people to remember you. I think those…

Meredith: The fifteen minutes of fame aspect of this has always intrigued me. That every four years, we learn about a random American that we have never heard and we're likely never to hear of again. I used to do some work for ABC Sports and they kind of famously created this thing called "Up Close and Personal" where we'd learn the background—in case this person finishes in the top three—we'd learn a little bit about the background of this person. The one I think of the most is Rulon Gardner, who was a wrestler and beat a Russian who had never, ever been beaten in his professional or amateur career. And…

Wyatt: And this is Rulon.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: This is a kid from Idaho.

Meredith: Just a big guy.

Lunt: From Star Valley, Wyoming.

Meredith: That's right, Wyoming.

Wyatt: That's right.

Lunt: And he beat Aleksandr Karelin who never loses. And he looks like he's not the same species as I am.

Meredith: You're right.

Lunt: Even, I mean, I think Gardner said this: Gardner's not a big, strong, strapping. He's a little rounder.

Meredith: Uh huh, yeah.

Lunt: But yeah, he won. And he…yeah, you're right. Immortality. I know his name but I don't remember the next person.

Meredith: Right. Just great individual stories. It's so compelling that somebody would be, "This thing that I do in my life, I'm pretty good at it. And all the sudden I'm on the world stage competing against others who do it."

Wyatt: How important is this idea of athletic heroes today? This is your area.

Lunt: This is. It's something I think about a lot because…so the ancient Greeks, the word "hero" has a pretty specific meaning. I mean, it's vague in a way, there are a lot of options, but it's someone you worship. And this person deserves sacrifices and can intervene in the world of the living after death and has sort of a super natural status that maybe we don't think…you know, you and I, we use the word "hero" to talk about the firefighter who rescues a child from a burning building. Which is heroic, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't necessarily have these religious implications. But the idea of someone achieving something that's so amazing that you and I are going to remember it, like Rulon Garnder, that's strong. And we use some of the same words even if we're not consciously doing it, we want to remember. It's really about memory I think. But we enshrine people, like in the Hall of Fame or a wall of remembrance. And that's a hero word. That's a religious word, a shrine. We put statues of them up, whether it's Canton, Ohio or the…down at the American First Events Center, right? We have little…we have the old letter jackets and the pictures and the trophies and stuff and so there is a sense of enduring excellence that I think still matters today. Even though we're only bobsled fans once every four years…

Wyatt: Right.

Lunt:…I think it matters.

Wyatt: To see the great accomplishments of people. The overcoming of barriers and the discipline and excellence it takes to become the best…there's something about that that still captivates us and motivates us, perhaps.

Lunt: Absolutely. And I think…I don't know, the Summer Games are obviously more popular and bigger than the Winter Games and this has to do with countries and how many people can participate, but also, in ancient Greece, the most prestigious victory was the one length of the stadium race. Just the one stad race. And that's the…you got the Olympiad named after you if you won that race. And I've often thought, "Why that one? Why is that such a big deal?" And it's just my theory, I haven't argued this formally, but I think it's because almost everyone has run in their life. You grow up running if you can as a kid anyway, you remember running for fun or running in a race and we all know what it takes to run and to run fast. And the idea of being the fastest runner in the world is something that everyone can appreciate. I can kind of appreciate being the fastest figure skater—or the fastest skater in the world, I guess, speed skater—or the fastest bobsledder, but I've never really done that. But everyone's run. And I think that sort of transference of our own identity and saying, "What if that was me?" Or, "I've done something like that, but that is so much better than what I did." I think that matters. In a positive way. I think it is a good thing for us to look to excellence and to recognize it. Maybe not venerate it, but I think recognition is important.

Wyatt: If we pause and think about our own selves and what humans can accomplish and what we see being accomplished by great athletes, great scholars, great artists, hopefully we see in that that our potential is far greater than we sometimes think. I…that's a message we want our students at the university to feel. Is that their potential far exceeds what they think is possible. And if there's ways to inspire them that direction, that's really something that's ennobling.

Lunt: Yeah, that's a really good way of putting it. The ancient Greeks had a word that denoted this kind of excellence and achievement, they called it, "arete." This sense of excellence and virtue and just all-around greatness and it had to do with physical beauty and mental beauty and prowess and all these ideas kind of tied up into one. And a lot of…and athletics is a way of demonstrating your "arete." And some of Plato's dialogues talk about, "Is arete revealed? Or can you actually learn it? Can you acquire arete?" And sometimes I have my students read about this and we have this discussion about getting our arete and where are we going to put it and this kind of accumulation of excellence, of ability. And almost always, we kind of come down on the side of, "We're all learning how to become more excellent. How to achieve more and get greater." And it's…I don't know, from my point of view, it's very rewarding to see the students embrace that idea; this concept of Socrates coming out in 21st century Cedar City. [All laugh]. But it's still here. And it shows up in the classroom, it shows up on the athletic field, it shows up all over the place.

Wyatt: And hopefully as we help our students—and I think families and everybody in the world is striving for this with those that they're closely connected with—hopefully as we teach them that they can do things greater than what they might think, that we can also help them think about the original ideals of the modern Olympics. Which is that we use this greatness to bring us together, not to divide us…something that's occasionally lost in the Olympics.

Lunt: Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. Some of the more endearing images from the Olympics are when the athletes embrace each other or these sort of international moments of friendship and of brotherhood and sisterhood. There's a great photo from the Rio Olympics of a couple of Korean gymnasts taking a photo together, a North Korean and a South Korean, and I don't know. That's a heartwarming thing to see. You know, maybe there is something to this idea of Pierre de Coubertin. Maybe we can use the Olympic Games to forge closer relationships.

Wyatt: It takes work though, doesn't it? It doesn't come naturally.

Lunt: Yeah. I think that's a good way of putting it.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring President Scott L Wyatt of Southern Utah University. We're very happy to have had our in-studio guest with us, Dr. Dave Lunt from the History Department, talking about the history of the ancient and modern Olympiad. Join us again, we'll be back soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.