If intellectual luminaries of Ancient Greece such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle could see a modern interpretation of our classic Olympic games, they’d likely be gratified their legendary athletic contest evolved into a unifying global event. Compare the ancient Olympians with our present day athletic engagement and depictions of a far flung future in sci-fi romps such as, The Hunger Games, Star Wars, and Star Trek, and if nothing else, it’s clear challenging athletic contests will survive centuries of sweeping, transforming modernity.
Humans are born contestants. We’re all Olympians on a basic level. Jump rope? Stickball? Hopscotch? Dodgeball? Right from the start, we’re all natural competitors. We want to run faster and longer; We need to jump higher or farther. Remember those spontaneous races during school lunch break at recess? Competition is in our blood at an early age, but some of us merely train better for it; graduate from the grammar school gymnasium or schoolyard to the big leagues. Throw a javelin, shot put or the discus, and the key focus is being driven to do it better, faster, and be more of a record breaker than the guy or gal before us.
On the international stage, things get even more competitive. We love a chance to boast of winning at ultimate tests of endurance and strength. That medal count matters to many; Who doesn’t like to see a Bruce Jenner, Gabby Douglas, or Mary Lou Retton adorn the face of the Wheaties or Corn Flakes box?
Yet looking closely at the dichotomy between a host country’s celebratory glee and focus with its own deteriorating social conditions, those Greeks of old could also be puzzled at how nations prepare for the party—especially catering to internationally invited guests—but then neglect the infrastructure used by their own people. That contrast is all too evident in Rio 2016.
Cultivating a dazzling, temporary celebration, versus investing in crumbling inner cities and broken down roads and cleaning up the nauseating, disease ridden water, may confuse and disturb those Olympian forefathers. Zika virus fears coupled with becoming ill from toxic waste filled waterways only heightens a feel that a joyous party is being thrown, while the host house is in terrible disarray. Indeed, despite promises to clean up waterways used for Olympic trials, the Associated Press tested the Guanabara Bay in Rio and found, “... disease-causing viruses directly linked to human sewage at levels up to 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the US or Europe.”
As Rio hosts the summer Olympics, an economically depressed backdrop and desperate social fabric in Brazil is exposed to all the world. It may not be as apocalyptic as The Hunger Games, however, speculative sci-fi vehicles tend to lead the way in shedding light on humanity's social ills and flaws.
The Hunger Games—Lethal Olympics
No problem if you’ve actively ignored this juggernaut movie franchise, you still have either heard of it or know superstar lead, Oscar winner for Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence. Far removed from the science fiction space romps like Star Wars, Star Trek, and StarGate, The Hunger Games, based on the books, eschews space battles and takes the notion of national athleticism to a whole new level.
Lawrence's heroine character, created by novelist Suzanne Collins, Katniss Everdeen, navigates a precarious course of four action packed movies. Katniss lives in a world where training means life and death—a gold, silver, or bronze medal would be considered useless trinkets in a place where it’s all about survival of the fittest.
Unlike the civil pageantry of The Olympics held every four years, Hunger Games are held yearly. Opponents are required to fight to the death. It’s a twisted, ruthless world where teens are essentially forced into a game where brutally killing each other is highly prized over all other personal accomplishments.
Although The Hunger Games is mostly embraced and watched throughout the world, in Vietnam, the movie was seen as being too violent for audiences. Ultimately, it was banned from being screened in that country.
Star Trek—The Future Games
Captain Kirk led his Enterprise with a cocky grin and confident swagger. That in real life, actor William Shatner was a motorbike enthusiast and student of Karate—among many other physical pursuits—it’s no wonder Kirk absorbed his creator actor’s impressive physical attributes.
Over three seasons of Gene Roddenberry’s original Trek, Kirk’s crew engaged in many contests or games of a sort with all manner of aliens, but one of the most demanding and Olympic like was on Planet Triskelion, in the episode, “The Gamesters of Triskelion.”
There, Kirk and crew are recruited against their will to become Game Thralls—players in do or die match-ups—way before the bloody thrills of UFC or MMA. They must adhere to rules of the Master Thrall, a kind of tyrannical athletic coach, who commands a crew of Drill Thralls—gladiator like drill instructors. Captain Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov will now fight in the games for the rest of their lives—pugilistic puppets at the mercy of the Providers—disembodied brains who get kicks from pitting thrall against thrall. Kirk saves the day, as always, so those bloody Olympics get terminated.
The Icarus Factor—TNG
Commander Riker is notorious for being a player. But also, for playing it safe. Oh Captain Picard’s first officer is brave and more than competent, but when it comes to advancing his career and accepting Starfleet promotions to command his own starship, Will Riker—as crackerjack rival, Commander Shelby, put it—“... sits in the shadow of a great man (Captain Picard).”
Maybe that career angst has something to do with dear old Dad?
In "The Icarus Factor," Kyle Riker boards his son’s ship and it isn’t long before the two mix it up—both verbally and physically. Elder Riker, a mission specialist, has no choice but to work with his son. Immediately, it’s clear they have a long estrangement. To relax and let off steam, they soon find themselves in the Enterprise’s rec room.
The men enjoy a spirited martial art called Anbo-Jyutsu—basically two opponents wearing body armor padding, beat the other senseless with electronic staffs. Despite a brutal drubbing from Dad, Riker gets something out of his smack down—honesty. His father had lied about using a finishing move for years—pretending it was illegal to keep his son off kilter and have an advantage to win over the younger man. With the revelation, Riker feels a sense of liberation and release. Like a tough Olympic coach mentoring his student, Riker’s Dad offers a last bit of guidance to allow him to mature and advance to life's next level.
Voyager’s 7of9, played by Jeri Ryan, is the busty Borg babe whom Captain Janeway adopts as one of her starship crew—after nearly being vanquished by her Borg buddies, and betrayed by the once human drone.
In, Tsunkatse, Seven must summon all her incredible Borg strength—along with her human fortitude—to survive in a gladiatorial styled fighting arena—sort of a Fight Club for the galaxy's aliens.
Easy, right? She’s Borg afterall. Not so fast! Enter The Rock.
As he was soaring as a global superstar in the world of cinema, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson became an alien fighter by guest starring on UPN’s Star Trek: Voyager. Seven smells what The Rock is cooking, because she’s easily defeated by him. Though extensive use of stunt doubles for all the actors were employed, it’s said Jeri Ryan was more than a little sore after her first day of the physically complex choreography.
Star Wars—The Empire Strikes Back—Yoda’s Jedi Training
Yoda, Jedi master or pint sized Olympic coach? Maybe they’re one in the same thing. For Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, the little green guy might as well be the most demanding task master in the entire galaxy—far, far away.
As Yoda puts his pupil through his grueling paces, bouncing around on the swampy world of Dagobah, we get the feeling Luke may not make it. Luke the loser? He gets winded easily, he’s more than a little whiny, and he can’t even raise his X-Wing Fighter out of the swamp using his unsteady telekinetic mojo. Sure, eventually, we’ll marvel at Luke using the Force as well as our beloved pointy eared puppet, but his training must be finished.
He is too old to be trained! Yoda huffs and puffs, but trains Luke anyway, and we get the feeling Skywalker is like a slightly too mature guy trying to become an expert gymnast on the pommel horse or uneven bars. Of course, what’s really at the core is the sword fighting. Lightsaber duels based on Japanese Kendo has more than a little real life athletic connection. Kendo never became an Olympic sport, but I think more than a few Star Wars fan would love to see Lightsaber duels side by side Judo and wrestling matches.
The Thought Games?
“I know Kung-Fu” —Neo, The Matrix
The Wachowski Brothers launched their own global, physically demanding event with their landmark film, The Matrix—starring Keanu Reeves as the prophetic hero, Neo. While most of the fun shenanigans found within the film are still completely speculative, the foundation—that of creating completely convincing simulations of the real world—is something scientists, programmers, and video game producers are constantly striving to make our reality.
With all the herculean and enormously expensive efforts in building real world Olympic stadiums and accommodations for guests and contestants, perhaps the future holds an elegant cyber answer: Digitally only simulations—The Thought Games.
Our computer simulations get more complex and convincing all the time. Pokemon Go addicts navigate the real world on their own physical trials to catch cheeky critters—an Olympic styled game if there ever was one. A holodeck Olympics where competitors don’t have to worry about fatal injuries? An Olympic Village which could fit neatly on a ship deck? Maybe the ultimate global games will come with a Matrix style interface. Just plug into the Matrix Thought Olympics and compete in Bullet Time. Agent Smith, are you ready to compete against our hero, Neo?