How the Olympics Still Form a Global Community of Beauty and Nobility

The Olympics provide a place to celebrate national identity on an unparalleled scale, and rather than compete against each other maliciously, the games are an opportunity to showcase the beauty and nobility of competition.

Sebastian Junger:  Sports are an interesting way for people who experience a collective identity. Sports teams in this country have their own sort of tribal impulses against each other. But then, you know, drop a few bombs on Pearl Harbor and then all of a sudden we’re one country facing an enemy. And people just naturally cohere into groups. And when you create a group just by necessity you’re also creating a whole bunch of people who aren’t in your group. And just mathematically know – that’s just a mathematical truth. And one of the interesting things about the Olympics is that it’s a chance for nations to demonstrate their nationness, to demonstrate the fact that they actually see themselves as a nation which is a beautiful thing. I mean that’s what we have organized ourselves into nations. That’s the modern world and when you see that on display it can be really moving. But it also because hopefully we’re sort of bigger than ourselves it also allows nations to entertain some kind of communalism between each other that’s sort of channeled through the ability of competition.

At the end of the day when you have different nations competing in the Olympics one of the things they’re all agreeing on is the incredible beauty and nobility of the human animal performing at its absolute peak. I’m reminded of a world class long distance runner that I’m friends with who competed in the mile in the 1960s and 70s. And he was at an international track meet in England and he was lined up on the track with the best milers in the world including the great Steve Ovett. And right before they started the race Steve Ovett pumped his fist in the air – he’s an amazing athlete. I think he had the world record for a while. He’s an amazing athlete. He raised his hand, pumped his fist in the air and he said okay gentlemen, let’s make it a good one. And what he was saying there, I mean he was going to try as hard as he could to win that race. But what he was also saying is look, it’s up to all of us to bring nobility to what we’re doing and what everyone in this arena has gathered to watch. So let’s do it. Don’t let them down. And I think the Olympics at their best can rise to that standard that Steve Ovett set at that moment.

Olympic history traces back to 776 BCE, where there was only one event, a race won by a cook called Coroebus. Since then, the Olympics have evolved. There are more games, more locations, and more people can attend, as women were once banned from attending in Ancient Olympia.

The Olympic Games naturally bring a country together. Everyone cheers for their home country, and together cry when someone else wins. It’s natural for people to form groups, and band together against the things outside of their tribe. Sometimes a country unites together in times of distress, for example after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, or the dropping of bombs on Japan. At those moments, countries unite to see what happens, and what they can do about it. The Olympics prove that it doesn’t take a tragedy to bring people together. Instead it shows how people can become one and cheer for gold as one moving part.

Sebastian Junger is a war reporter, and author of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. It is his belief that the idea of the Olympics relate to fundamental needs of humanity. This includes grouping, and naturally being against other groups. It’s about the home tribes banding together and being one. Sports has long proved that it can bring a mass of people together, with two sides in one stadium yelling and cheering for a win, and standing out in the parking lot to chant for their favored side.

That is the heart of the Olympics. Beyond just putting up a show for the world to watch, it’s bringing the country together, followed by bringing the world together. So many countries all at once watching the same thing, and wishing for the same goal, even if they belong to different tribes.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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