Geeks as well as jocks have both played prominent roles in the Olympics ever since the first events were held (we think) in 776 BCE. Sculptors and poets participated in artistic competitions alongside brawny wrestlers and statuesque discus throwers. Moreover, the ancient Greeks believed the cultivation of the mind, body and spirit should all be linked together, since that is the foundation for developing the moral character of citizens in a democracy.
Today, neuroscience has taught us what the Greeks intuitively understood. Human reasoning is not the product of a machine functioning independently. The brain is linked to the physical world because it has evolved to ensure the body's survival. According to behavioral neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, we have a brain in order to "run the economy of the body in a better way."
In other words, biologically speaking, we are well-balanced creatures, thanks to what Damasio calls "this beautiful way in which the brain through its mind operation creates maps of its own organism."
In culture, however, we have a very different understanding of the relationship between mind and body as we tend to divide our activities and assign them to either the physical or the mental economy. We're specialists, and we're not expected to be equally proficient in Homer and gymnastics. That is because we happen to live in a world that is radically different from antiquity. As Pamela Haag argued recently, America has an obesity "epidemic" because we hate our bodies: "If Michelangelo’s David was the physical expression of a humanist society, then obesity is the physical expression of a post-humanist society."
What's the Big Idea?
How are we different from the Greeks? It is our economy, not our bodies, that evolved.
Consider how certain ancient Greek competitions involved skills directly tied to the practical demands of an agrarian economy. Today we labor more with our minds than with our hands. We don't need to run from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens in order to deliver the news of a great victory. We no longer worship Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, metalworking, stonemasonry and sculpture because we take all of those things for granted. Stonemasonry is simply not valued as a divine gift. Programming computers might be. Simply put, we value geeks over jocks.
Below is a slideshow that details what a Geek Olympics might look like.
While these games are proposed in jest, the underlying idea here is that different times require a different set of skills. Steering a ten-horse chariot, for instance, is not something that one needs to master to be successful today. And so if we wish to honor our 21st century gods, we might do well to hold a competition that demonstrates the greatest prowess in, say, programming or data visualization, both achievements of the human mind, not the body.
1. Ultimate Frisbee
Is Ultimate Frisbee, the much-maligned sport of hippies and stoners, also the smartest sport in the world? A 2006 University of Washington study surveyed all 86 private universities in the country and found a striking correlation between success in Ultimate Frisbee and success in academics. In fact, frisbee was found to be a better predictor of academic success than grades and SAT scores. If Ultimate is in fact the sport that best showcases the complete package that is the scholar-athlete--something the ancient Greeks would be proud of--shouldn't it be considered an official NCAA sport? For now, it will just have to hold onto its place in the Geek Olympics.
2. The X Files Marathon
If watching many hours of TV rewires your brain, what are the effects of watching a 9-season marathon of the sci-fi show "The X Files," the cult classic that so captivated the adolescent minds of "X-Philes" everywhere? Mulder's alien conspiracy theories and Scully's hard-nosed approach to hard science made us think about the scientific process as well as the fundamental nature of reality. To get through all 203 episodes doesn't require a lot of cardio but it will require patience to get through the bad patches. The truth is still out there.
If this activity seems terribly slothful, keep in mind that the ancient Greeks were devoted couch potatoes as well. They would honor Dionysus by sitting through 15 plays over three days.
3. The Gaming Pentathlon
A growing body of research suggests that playing video games improves creativity, perception, short-term memory and decision-making. On the other hand, other studies have linked compulsive gaming to depression and obesity. Other health risks include, in some rare and extreme cases, death.
So which games did we choose to nominate as the penultimate tests of gaming prowess? Here's our proposed Gaming Pentathlon, representing the five major gaming categories:
4. Code Wrestling and Hackathon
Code Jamming requires competitors to quickly and persistently solve complex algorithms that can create functional programs with incompatible software or break through digital defenses. Held by a number of institutions including Google and MIT, excellence in this event means (beyond cash prizes and access to angel investors) that a competitor has superior ability in applying mathematical reasoning to computer problems speedily and effectively.
5. Memory Championship
"To attain the rank of grand master of memory, you must be able to perform three seemingly superhuman feats. You have to memorize 1,000 digits in under an hour, the precise order of 10 shuffled decks of playing cards in the same amount of time, and one shuffled deck in less than two minutes."
Competitors, while unlikely to prove themselves one of the 36 worldwide Masters of Memory, would compete to get as close to the standard above as possible. Ties would be broken by competitors having 3 minutes in a grocery store to pick up a list of items and memorize the bar code numbers on the back and then repeat them to the judges upon "checkout" as this UK memory champion can.
While memorization might seem like a useless skill today, studies show it is beneficial to the development of cognitive skills, particularly in children. In many religions, the memorization of scriptures promises rewards beyond this life.
6. Magic: The Gathering
Magic: The Gathering is a card game based on the premise of players as wizards in a clearing using a combination of spells, sorcery and summoned creatures to defeat one another. Beyond checking all the geek boxes, (wizards and fantasy creatures, huge cache of knowledge to obsess over, etc.) it requires honed strategy skills. The introduction of new cards and types of cards over time since the game was created in 1993 insures that it is highly complex and will only get more so as time goes on.
Since games can involve more than two players, this event tests not only the strategic thinking of competitors, but also their political cunning, perhaps the two attributes most valued in today's society.
7. Sporcle Free-for-All
Sporcle.com is a website that contains thousands upon thousands of curated trivia quizzes of various formats covering every topic imaginable, including the very very nerdy. That last link, for example, quizzes your ability to name the characters from Star Wars in order of how many lines they spoke.
Competitors in the final round of the Geek Olympics would do a shoot out of quizzes selected from Sporcle's "approved" archives at random and by the competitors, testing the general fund of knowledge that our modern day heroes must have in spades to truly be the ultimate modern competitor.
Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter: @DanielHonan