On Language, Culture and Competition: Faculty Offer Olympics Lessons

Olympic Rings

Before Friday's Olympics opening ceremonies, University of Arizona professors will offer key insights about the people, places, cultures and languages that will make this summer's games particularly memorable.

The university's Humanities Seminars Program has lined up experts on countries and cultures from around the world for a free, 90-minute online lecture on July 22 at 7 p.m.

"The Olympics is perhaps the world's most beloved international, intercultural and multilingual event," said Micah Lunsford, senior coordinator of the Humanities Seminars Program, a lifelong learning program offered through the College of Humanities. "We’ve lined up a team of gold-medal instructors to offer a treasure trove of facts and stories about the human experience on both personal and grand scales."

Founded in 1984, the Humanities Seminars Program has enrolled more than 22,000 community members in nearly 400 not-for-credit seminars. During the pandemic, the program shifted online, which made it possible for people beyond  Tucson to register for courses, and allowed for the launch of new offerings like the Olympics lecture, Lunsford said.

Ken McAllister, College of Humanities associate dean of research and program innovation, had the idea for an Olympics-focused class while he and his wife were vacationing at a cabin in New Mexico last month. A tiny general store nearby was buzzing with anticipation for the games, with talk about various sports and countries and the massive logistical challenges involved.

"The Olympics is about the biggest humanities story you could hope for," McAllister said. "We brainstormed some ideas, and the best was a free seminar drawing on the college's most expert faculty. These are great teachers who were thrilled to jump in, and within 48 hours we had all our speakers lined up."

The class will feature 10 short presentations on Olympics-related topics such as history, culture, how international athletes communicate across language barriers and more. Participants will be able to ask questions about the Olympics as an international cultural event, with professors ready to share their expertise about Japan, Russia, India, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, ancient Greece and more.

Rob Stephan, assistant professor of classics, will discuss the history and evolution of the Olympics, starting almost 3,000 years ago when ancient Greeks from around the Mediterranean arrived in a remote corner of the Peloponnese to compete in a brand-new sporting event. What began with no lucrative sponsorships, no monetary prizes and no high-tech athletic gear – or any clothes at all, for that matter – has become a big business, with the cost of the Tokyo Olympics totaling more than $15 billion. 

"Over the course of Greco-Roman antiquity, this sporting event, the Olympic Games, steadily grew in popularity," Stephan said. "Today, so much has changed, yet the spirit of peaceful competition, civic pride and athletic glory remains the same. In my talk, we look back at the ancient origins of this historic event to better understand how it began, grew and evolved into the worldwide phenomenon we see today."

Other presentations will focus on the following topics, among others:

  • the intersection of Japan's climate, culture and catastrophes
  • basketball's origin as part of the YMCA's Christian sex education, as a way to channel young men's energy away from sexual recreation
  • the ways in which religion and sport can be seen as similar phenomena
  • what the Olympics mean to Japan
  • the multitude of languages at the Olympics
  • post-colonialism in Olympic Soccer

"It should make watching the Olympics much richer, and is a great example of what we do so well in the humanities: honor, think about and share the lives, stories and cultures of people from all over the world," McAllister said.


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