Is athleticism the virtue of our time?

About 50,000 runners participated in this year’s NY city marathon, growing the number of applicants and participants from previous editions[1].  The Chicago marathon also drew record numbers with roughly 45,000 runners[2].  300,000 athletes compete in Ironman triathlons around the world every year[3], record numbers of climbers at Mount Everest, and award-winning films about athletic achievements are made and celebrated (as was the admittedly spectacular Free Solo).  General interest for sport from around the world—as demonstrated by the increasing viewership of such events—indicate not only interest but general admiration towards athletics.

The FIFA World Cup is a greater attention-grabbing event than any scientific breakthrough, artistic composition, or presidential election.  Followed perhaps by the Olympic Games, the UEFA Champions League, the Super Bowl, the Copa Libertadores, Le Tour de France, and a list of several other sporting events held around Earth[4].

Health crazes have resulted in a $100 billion a year fitness industry[5] where consumers gravitate towards wellness products that include gym memberships, exercise apps, supplements, special diet plans, cryotherapy, and even alcohol-free cocktail bars.  Government also stepped in by memorably outlawing smoking in public spaces, and at times even proposing nonsensical laws like banning big-gulp sugary drinks.

Athletes themselves possess great power.  Ordinary sportspersons enjoy bragging rights and respect from members of their communities, and elite athletes have influence over our culture as much as world leaders do.  Let us not forget the case of American football player Colin Kaepernick when he spearheaded a political movement in the most powerful country in the world.  Association football powerhouses Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are glorified role models for youngsters everywhere.  Incredible athletic feats as those by Alex Honnold, Kilian Jornet, or Eliud Kipchoge are staples of dinner party conversations.  George Weah is president of Liberia more because of his football talent and celebrity, than his actual talent in public policy.

Although we can point to other eras in human history where athleticism was considered integral to the examined life (such as in Hellenistic Greece), this has not always been the case.  A century ago, marathon runners might have made use of a little brandy to help them during race day, and not many people dared to climb the tallest mountains.  Certainly, sportsmen did not have the power of kings.  Collective interest has been put elsewhere at different times, and civilization’s other virtues like art or philosophy have taken center stage in other epochs just like athleticism seems to be doing in the current one.

Other virtues, actually, seem to be at a relative impasse.  No noticeable artistic movements seem to be penetrating the collective imagination, and music has objectively deteriorated.  A war of ideas showing a decay in our collective philosophy is certainly transpiring, as exemplified by known phenomena like “post-truth”, call-out culture, and patience-exhausting ideas like those of flat Earth societies.  Our gravitation towards athleticism might be due to the fact that our lives are much more comfortable now and so we seek adventure and physical pain to stay sane? Perhaps, but we should consider that our collective snub at other virtues will have had their effect.