O’Shea ’19: Welcome to the Heps

staff columnist
Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Last weekend, in a cold, clear corner of the Empire State, a battle raged. The eight Track and Field teams of the Ivy League assembled for the 68th meeting of the Indoor Heptagonal Games. This grand tradition provided two days of agony and ecstasy to its participants and spectators, as the emotions of an entire season were compressed into a single day. For generations, the Heps has endured as a bastion of the triumph of the human spirit in the pursuit of excellence. Today, as our culture moves to place greater emphasis on the avoidance of hardship, the Heps stands as a reminder to hold restraint as no virtue, to embrace the difficulties that must be overcome for meaningful advancement.

To arrive at the Heps is to step back in time. Cornell’s Barton Hall, which today houses its indoor athletic facilities, was built in 1915, housing airplanes during World War I. This wooden and steel cage with incongruous, mossy masonry at the base evokes the age of the eight-way rivalry that has brought generations of athletes together on a cold weekend in February. Aside from an electronic timing system and digital photography, this meet remains the same as it was 60 years ago. The commercialism that has seeped into collegiate athletics in recent years is absent. There are no lavish gifts to participants,  NBC does not hold exclusive broadcasting rights, and even Nike, our sport’s omnipresent overlord, has not managed to slap its swoosh on anything other than some uniforms and shoes. The best way to tell whether it is 2016 or 1976 is the haircuts. The only trigger warning you will hear is “Set!” In this space one finds a pure competition: feats of strength and endurance untainted by modern excess.

The Heps maintains the tradition of the intrepid amateur that was exemplified by Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. While a full-time student of neurology at medical school in England, Bannister trained and competed to become the greatest miler in the world. The strict recruiting and academic standards set by the Ivy League have ensured that any athlete competing in the Ancient Eight is compliant with the academic standards of non-varsity students. Many athletes have thrived under this system, including current Brown runners who have earned All-American status or spots on national teams. This weekend, Ivy Leaguers will compete at the NCAA Championships, towing the line with competitors from the nation’s most well-known athletic programs. The ideal of the student striving for greatness beyond the classroom should be applied to all extracurricular pursuits, encouraging students to take on additional responsibilities with the goal of self-betterment, not as a hollow excuse to shun scholastic excellence.

The continuous lineage of Renaissance men and women who have competed and studied in this conference is on full display at the Heps. Well-worn varsity sweaters dot the bleachers like a woolen alphabet soup. These alums intermingle with current students to form a chorus during each race. The continuity of the Ivy League, unlike the shifting ranks of the Power Five conferences, serves to heighten the passions of this annual gathering, as the entrenched rivalries play out unpredictably year after year.

What has changed in recent years is the way our League is viewed by outsiders. There has been a great deal of commentary recently describing Ivy League students as “coddled elites,” as cowards maladjusted to the demands and conflicts of the adult world. If our institutions were to drift away from their foundations in rigorous academics to accommodate such a deleterious shift in the student body, we would surely see a decline in the quality of education we receive and research we produce.

But this is not the League I know. I invite all our critics to come to the Heps, to step in the cage beside a 250-pound shot putter or try to hang in the pack with our distance runners for just one lap to see what we’re really about. They will find a group of resilient explorers, searching for the limits of human performance in both mind and body. The term “elite” is thrown around venomously by pundits to describe what they see as a generation of entitled crybabies. In the Heps, we are elite, not because of wealth or fancy campuses, but rather because of our commitment to success through strenuous effort.

The Heps defines what has made the Ivies the world’s most eminent group of universities. It is the responsibility of us all to maintain this standard in all aspects of our institution. If Brown intends to remain the pinnacle of intellectual advancement, we must hold ourselves to rigorous standards and not shy away when adversity causes discomfort.

Ronan O’Shea ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to