Athletic Beauty

Sunday, April 6, 2008
First Aired: 
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What Is It

Figure skating is athletic and beautiful.  How about a bone-crunching tackle?  Or a  spikes-high slide into second?  Or a slam-dunk?  Or an overweight sixty-year-old at a bowling alley?  John and Ken discuss the nature of athletic beauty with Hans Gumbrecht, author of In Praise of Athletic Beauty.

Listening Notes

Is there such a thing as athletic beauty? Is it different from artistic beauty? Is one somehow more beautiful, or more relevant to our lives? What does athleticism represent? John and Ken begin the show by discussing these matters, with Ken playing art's advocate and John expressing his love for sports and athletics. John and Ken recount some of their most memorable aesthetic moments, and realize that many of them involve sports. Both Ken and John have a bit of trouble deciding if sports are an artform, but they agree that sports have a power to grip people in a meaningful way.

Ken introduces Hans Gumbrecht, author of many works including "In Praise of Athletic Beauty" and Albert Guerard Professor in Literature at Stanford University. John asks Hans: Don't people care more about their team winning than looking beautiful? Aren't championships and goals what attract people
to sports? Gumbrecht agrees completely, but thinks that even in the most diehard fans there exists a certain amount of appreciation for the beauty of the game. Gumbrecht argues that beauty is the least mentioned of the important reasons why people love sports, and that is why it is interesting to discuss.

John asks about the use of the word "aesthetic" and Gumbrecht explains how his position is essentially an extension of Kantian aesthetics to the world of sports. Especially important is Kant's idea that if you judge something as beautiful it is hard for you to understand why or how others could not--and this seems exceptionally true in terms of sports. Ken and Hans go on to discuss Kant's ideas concerning the beautiful and the sublime and how this relates to the difference between athletic beauty and traditional artistic beauty. Ken goes on to discuss purposiveness and sports, how the goals in sports are somewhat abstract and contrived but in the same sense are very real and simple--scoring a run and winning a game versus hitting a ball a certain distance. Gumbrecht and John discuss the different purposes in sport and how one appreciates more than just the functional achievements of athletes, but also some aesthetic quality contained in those actions (a home run vs a majestic home run).

John, Ken, and Hans Gumbrecht go on to discuss favorite sports, sport moments, and how sports and sporting events reflect human culture and human attributes with callers. Callers also prompt discussion of how sports can expand our beliefs about beauty and discover more beauty within ourselves everyday.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:16): Polly Stryker interviews coaches and athletes in sumo wrestling and gymnastics to get their perspective on beauty and athleticism. 
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek 50:02): Ian Shaoles speeds through the ancient Greek wrestling tradition, Plato's athletic career, and later Roman sporting events.