Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Geek Games could honour brains, not brawn

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BRISBANE -- No celebration of human endeavour stirs Australian passions quite like the Olympics -- not the Nobel Prize, not the Australia Day Awards, not even the seraphic spheres of sainthood.

Our freestyle sprinters' failure to win gold at the start of the week left us in deep shock, a cold compress pressed to our collective head, the smelling salts sent for.

"Where did those French people come from?" was the strangled cry, amid some suggestions we were simply collateral damage in a Gallic bid to take revenge on the English for Agincourt.

When gold medals arrived with the women's freestyle relay team, we were immeasurably cheered, the four talented swimmers providing a comforting reflection of our strong, youthful and successful selves.

In Australia, a Nobel Prize winner compared to an Olympic gold medallist is like an actor who never won an Oscar but who scored a Tony after a Broadway performance -- widely recognized by an elite band of insiders but largely ignored by the rest of us.

Even sainthood pales in comparison to an Olympic triumph, partly because competitors in the canonization stakes have to be dead before they get the final nod from Rome, and partly because being Christ-like attracts little by way of corporate sponsorship.

Swimming sensation Ian Thorpe, who has earned a fortune in endorsements, is far more readily recognizable in Australia than St. Mary MacKillop, or even Elizabeth Blackburn for that matter.

Elizabeth co-won a 2009 Nobel for discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the role of an enzyme called telomerase in maintaining or stripping away the shield -- reason enough for her to be largely ignored in a country that values physicality over physiology.

Canada may have a more realistic "it's only a game'' attitude to "the Games," yet it's a fair bet your own Rudolph A. Marcus, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, is not feted as much as, say, Mark Tewksbury.

It might be churlish to sit on the sidelines and question the worth of an event that showcases the beauty of athleticism and symbolizes humanity's endless striving for excellence.

But while the Olympics might be a worthy celebration of international fraternity they're also a misfiring of the evolutionary spirit.

Once upon a time, feats of physical endurance were vital to the survival of the tribe, and we rightly celebrated those among us who could throw a spear all the way back to Sparta or wrestle like a Peloponnesian warrior.

Olympic victory back in 400 BC reassured us we were powerful in battle or superior in the hunt but devoting attention and resources to athletes today gives ordinary mortals little return -- no bang for our buck.

What we need in the 21st century is an international arena not for the high jump, but the high brow -- a Geek Games if you will -- a forum where the world's brightest minds gather to formulate answers to questions ranging from age-related illness to a workable political solution in the Middle East.

Certainly this sounds, prima facie, like not merely a flight of idealized self-indulgence but a staggeringly stupid idea. Who on Earth will cheer in the stadiums while pointy heads attempt to disprove the theory of relativity?

But just consider for a moment the rapid development of knowledge as a competitive form of entertainment in the 20th century.

Televised quiz shows and trivia nights are only recent arrivals in human history. Our early ancestors didn't sit around a campfire in Asia Minor gnawing on brontosaurus bones asking each other, "What's the capital of Albania?''

Being knowledgeable became cool in the past century, and in the 21st, it's time to fast-track this competitive impulse, move beyond the physical and allow the cerebral to enrich the human experience.

If we'd acted earlier, the 2012 Nerd Olympics might have given us more insight into what all those proton beams are doing zipping around under the ground at the Franco-Swiss border.

Over 11,000 certified dorks sifting through the evidence thrown up by the Large Hadron Collider might have taken us closer to answering every question the universe has ever thrown up.

Right down to why Australians are so enamoured with the Olympic Games.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2012 A12

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