Evolution meets the Olympics

Faster, higher, stronger. The Olympics celebrate the best of mankind. Or do they? Nigel Nicholson has evolved a different perspective.

Faster, higher, stronger. The Olympics celebrate the best of mankind. Or do they? Nigel Nicholson has evolved a different perspective.


Now the Olympics are just around the corner should we not pause and consider what, exactly, we are celebrating in this great pageant? At one level it is of course the glory of the nation state, and which of those in the arena can claim the clean, healthy excellence of its culture by achieving the most medal winners per head of population. On this basis the disaster that was East Germany used to try to fool the world it really did have the answer to how social harmony and performance could be most sweetly combined. It is easy to forget we are still playing the same game, for one can readily see numerous examples of Olympic cleanliness being used to cloak state barbarism. Purists will remind us, of course, that this nationalistic fervour is comparatively recent, and that the Olympic ideal is to glorify the potential of the human form in feats of athleticism, from wherever on the planet they may come.

But even were we to emulate this ideal — for indeed this remains a theme that underpins the Olympics — it is worth taking a step back to consider what kind of excellence we are really aiming for, and how truly pathetic most of our games are.
Only an evolutionary perspective can show this. It tells us we parade quite the wrong array of events to celebrate what it means to be human.

Let’s look at the highest profile track and field events. Running. Well, I ask you — aliens spying on us from the planet Tharg are not impressed watching this puny biped chasing round the oval track. They can see dozens of other species on our planet who make our efforts look laughable.

The marathon is marginally more impressive — long distance walking is actually what we bipeds do better than most other mammals, but we don’t have five-day trekking in the Olympics, yet. Hurdles? Forget it. Herds of ungulates, goats and equines make our efforts look laughable. Throwing things? Yes, that’s a lot more interesting — the unique human adaptation of the rotating shoulder joint means throwing projectiles has long been a source of peculiar human advantage in hunting and warfare. On this reasoning we should celebrate dexterity — courtesy of the opposable thumb — and feature sports that are variants of nit-picking, though we’d run into strong competition from other apes. A typing event might be a bit special, I suppose.

Let’s go into the swimming pool. No, let’s not — we are outclassed by just about any marine mammal, though human diving is pretty cool, that is until you watch gannets fishing. Synchronised swimming? Now you’re talking! Here we see something pretty interesting, though flocks of birds and shoals of fish actually reproduce far more impressive displays of coordinated activity than we do, but we really do outclass them in the nose-clip, eyelashes and lipstick departments.

Gymnastics? Sorry — most other primates are forest dwelling and make our displays on pommel or trapeze look pretty miserable and puny. Competitive sports? It is less the activity than the competition which makes them interesting. Boxing — elks and elephant seals are much more serious, and don’t mind fighting to the death. Ours is just make-believe. We stop as soon as someone gets hurt!

So, I hear you cry, what would be quintessentially human and celebrate the full range of our evolved endowment? There is only one answer: Formula 1 Grand Prix racing. First, there is the physicality. Who but humans subject their bodies to the cramped conditions of a cockpit, unnaturally clothed for near death experiences, and then subject themselves to huge physical stresses for the sake of distant possible rewards?

Second, there is the teamwork. Look at what happens at pit stops — a bunch of frenzied humans do things to a hunk of metal against ridiculous time pressure before getting the car back on the road. A huge and complex team supports the poor dummy risking his life in the car. Then there’s the technology. Stop and wonder at the precision engineering — only humans have taken tool use to this level of sophistication. Even the aliens watching from Tharg would be impressed.

Third, there is the money. Lots of it. Beautiful people are magnetised by the power, luxury and wealth that are poured into this sport. Most of the population can only glimpse this from afar and never dream of being invited to the track for cocktails with the sponsors, owners and stars. Formula 1 really helps to give embodiment to the fabulous inequalities we have created through our intra-species competition and ingenuity.

Forget the sprinter Usain Bolt and the swimmer Rebecca Adlington — who do no more than flap their muscles around. The supremos of Formula 1, are the epitome of our species.

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