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I have always hesitated at the aphorism mens sana in corpore sano. When Juvenal originally wrote in his tenth Satire that “we should pray for a sound mind in a sound body” (orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano), he was not exalting physical and mental perfection; he meant only that our health is more important than the false benefits of greed and vanity (Sat. 10.356). In the modern Olympic environment, corpus sanum is clearly exalted above mens sana, and the ancient Olympics were, if anything, worse; David C. Young has written a sobering account of the rather disreputable origin and history of amateurism and its relationship to Olympic competition. The modern participant spends hours per day, days per month, and months per year for year after year perfecting a physical skill and adapting her perceptual skills to enhance it. The NCAA, a defender of modern amateurism, limits student-athletes to twenty hours a week of required athletics-related activity during the season of competition. Does anyone think that an Olympic figure-skater or gymnast or sprinter practices only twenty hours a week for only part of the year? While elite athletes are physically magnificent, they appear to be valued for this magnificence out of proportion to its importance. The Greek poet Xenophanes 2500 years ago wrote:
Now, supposing a man were to win the prize for the footrace at Olympia, there where the precinct of Zeus stands beside the river, at Pisa: or if he wins the pentathlon, or the wrestling, or if he endures the pain of boxing and wins, or that new and terrible game they call the pankration, contest of all holds: why, such a man will obtain honor, in the citizens’ sight, and be given a front seat and be on display at all civic occasions, and he would be given his meals all at the public expense, and be given a gift from the city to take and store for safekeeping. If he won with the chariot, too, all this would be granted to him, and yet he would not deserve it, as I do. Better than brute strength of men, or horses either, is the wisdom that is mine. But custom is careless in all these matters and there is no justice in putting strength on a level above wisdom which is sound.
Nevertheless, in an abstract sort of way, the ideal of physical and mental excellence is hard to argue with, and this ideal reflects the goals of athletes in honors.