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Competitive Athletics a Foundation for the Development of Democracy

Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics Lecture Brings Students and Faculty Together Downtown

Dr. Heather Reid gives the Kenneth Mark Drain Lecture for Trent University and community downtown Peterborough
Dr. Heather Reid gives the Kenneth Mark Drain Lecture for Trent University and community downtown Peterborough

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Socrates’ favourite hang-out was the local gymnasium. So said Dr. Heather Reid, guest speaker at the second anniversary Kenneth Mark Drain Lecture held Monday, November 5 at the Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in downtown Peterborough. Dr. Reid’s presentation examined the relationships between sport, philosophy and democracy, and their origins in ancient Greece.

“It’s not just a coincidence that philosophy, democracy and Olympic-style sports share a common birth place in ancient Greece,” said Dr. Reid, pointing out that there are important conceptual resemblances between the three, including their ability to sort out competing claims to virtue, truth and governance.

She described the close relationship that existed between philosophy and athletics in ancient Greece, contrasting that with today’s university campus, where philosophers, poets and intellectuals are separated from the athletes and sporting venues. “If this were ancient Greece, the philosophers would be running the gymnasiums and the poets would be staffing the sports information office,” said Dr. Reid.

Because the Olympics predate philosophy and democracy by a few hundred years, Dr. Reid argued that Olympic sports influenced modern philosophical and democratic notions.

The introduction of competition in the Olympics as a means of deciding results, rather than hierarchy, was later reflected in the philosophical concepts of argument and evidence to support claims. And the fair and transparent decision-making process implicit in Olympic-style sport provided a foundation for the development of democracy. “Olympic athletes submitted themselves to common rules and considered themselves equal,” said Dr. Reid, “This inspired the idea that citizens of diverse classes could exist under the authority of a common law.”

Because sports demonstrated that excellence could be achieved through training, rather than entitlement or divine intervention, she argued this influenced the educational activities of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. “Socrates seems to have adapted the competitive methods of athletics to the educational purpose of cultivating excellence and virtue,” said Dr. Reid. “He spent much of his time at gymnasium where he would seek out the young men that he wrestled with, both intellectually and physically.”

In conclusion, Dr. Reid suggested that modern society could benefit from examining the role that sport played in ancient Greek society. “Our contemporary separation of academics and athletics deserves to be revisited considering the close connections between philosophy and athletics in the golden age of Greece,” she said. “The ancient Olympics discovery of sport’s potential to challenge social hierarchy is worth remembering as we struggle with issues of privilege, class, race and gender.”

Dr. Heather Reid is a professor and chair of philosophy at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. She is a former competitive cyclist, who won a national intercollegiate championship, and qualified for the Olympic trials in 1984 and 1988. She is the author of numerous books and articles in ancient philosophy, philosophy of sport, and Olympic Studies and has lectured on these topics throughout the world.

The Chair in Ethics was established in 2010 by members of the Patterson and Drain families in honour of Kenneth Mark Drain, described as “a quintessential son of Peterborough.” Having lived and worked in Peterborough County all his life, Kenneth Drain was an exemplary volunteer and lived a life of quiet deeds.

Posted on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

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