It’s fair to ask if such a species couldn’t devise and televise an even nobler competitive outlet. “What if nations competed on the best programs to reduce maternal mortality?” the novelist Joyce Hackett wondered on Facebook. “Competitive literacy rates! Countries with the most new readers reach the finals, and then formerly illiterate citizens declaim their country’s greatest poets for the win.”
In under a year — a record pace — we developed not one but several vaccines against the deadliest virus in a century. But we’re still struggling to persuade enough people to take them, even as the virus spins out new variants of itself — Alpha, Beta, Delta — as if for a Greek contest of its own. We suppose we’re done with old-school competition, but it isn’t done with us.
Already some observers are wondering whether the Olympics has run its course as an enterprise. The extreme heat and humidity in Tokyo has taken a punishing toll on athletes — climbers, swimmers, runners, tennis players. (Belgium’s field hockey team prepared for the conditions by training in a heat chamber, and the Olympic marathon is being held 500 cooler miles away.) A 2016 study in The Lancet found that global warming will greatly restrict where future Summer Games can be held. Winter athletes are increasingly limited in where they can train. Our competitiveness may be putting us out of the competition business, literally and figuratively.
This will make for dispiriting viewing, to say nothing of a dispiriting living experience on Earth. How will we amuse ourselves when the marvels of human sport and the natural world begin to run dry? Marble racing, maybe. Kitchen athletics. No doubt one way or another, for better or worse, we’ll always have curling.