In the short story "Profession" (1957) by Isaac Asimov, much of the story revolves around the Olympics that take place on Earth every year. As a child, the main character asks his father about the origin of the word Olympics.

Once he had asked his father: “Why do they call it Olympics, Dad?”

And his father had said: “Olympics means competition.”

George had said: “Is when Stubby and I fight an Olympics, Dad?”

Platen, Senior, had said: “No. Olympics is a special kind of competition and don’t ask silly questions. You’ll know all you have to know when you get Educated.”

The story ends again with George asking those words, "Why do they call them Olympics?" The reader is not told the reason.

What is the significance of the origin of the word "Olympics" in the story?

  • 1
    I think the key phrase is "You'll know all you need to know when you get Educated." There is an assumption that certain knowledge is useful, hence "need to know" and other knowledge is not useful. In this world George is considered to be Educated even though he still doesn't understand the reason for the word "Olympics."
    – tomi
    Jan 26, 2021 at 12:03

4 Answers 4


I think Asimov may have used the term "Olympics" and added the last line as a sign of bitter irony.

George knows that the Olympics were a true competition by those that had developed and honed their skills through long practice and effort. By contrast, while the games do have an outward appearance of a competitive Olympic event the competitors in the story are simply regurgitating what they have learned via the electronic "Education" process. There was no effort on their part, no development of skills, no originality, etc. in what they completed.

Thus at the end I think George recognizes that calling the games "Olympics" is false and misleading. Yet, everyone else still calls them that without realizing the truth. If we heard his voice speaking the line I think we would hear bitterness, sadness and more than a touch of irony.


The contestants compete against one another in defined categories:

The dear, polished voice of the announcer sounded. "Distinguished Novian sponsors. Ladies. Gentlemen. The Olympics competition for Metallurgist, Nonferrous, is about to begin. The contestants are—"

And there is a winner, second and third place awarded:

Finally, the announcer's voice sounded. "Winner in the time of four minutes and twelve seconds, diagnosis correct, analysis correct within an average of zero point seven parts per hundred thousand, Contestant number — seventeen, Henry Anton Schmidt of..."

What followed was drowned in the screaming. Number Eight was next and then Four, whose good time was spoiled by a five-part in ten thousand error in the niobium figure.

So there is a fairly strong analogy to an Olympic event. There is also already a form of academic competition called an "Olympics" or "Olympiad" like the Science Olympiad and the International Math Olympiad, so the pattern is established outside of sport.


This reflects how the taped education of the era can teach people to mindlessly call them the Olympics, but since they don't bother to teach them history, they do not learn why they are called the Olympics.

Notice that very little knowledge of history would have let George see that he was attending a school, so obviously, teaching historical knowledge is not prioritized at any point. Learning about the ancient Greeks would have let him recognize a school as well as know what the meaning of Olympics is.

It also reflects how George is curious about things outside the taped knowledge he is handed on a platter.


The significance of the word 'Olympics' is the underlying assumption of fairness required for true competition.

It is shown by anecdote that the competition is unfair (due to the differing provision of Education tapes that mean Trevelyan could never have won his "competition").

The general populace are unable to reason critically and thus cannot see the Olympics is merely a fight (won by those with preferential resources). It is a "fight" like he'd have with Trevelyan that was called out by his father as not Olympic - they differed in height and stature a little.

George has those reasoning skills, and thus sees the Olympics are not true competition and should not be called Olympics.

The ironic point is that those with high-order thinking cannot think like lower-order rote learned thinkers, just as lower-order learners cannot think like high-order thinkers. So George doesn't understand how the populace themselves can consider the Olympics as true olympic competition.

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