Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Television: Why I love the Olympics

Since the start of the Winter Olympics--a little more than two weeks ago--I've been thinking about the meaning of the games, as one does every four years or so. I'm always mildly surprised by my own interest in the competitions, as I'm generally not a fan of sports; the Olympics are one of the few sporting events I look forward to and watch as much as I can. A fair number of people claim to hate the games, but I was heartened to see that a Google search on "Why I hate the Olympics" returns only 40,000 hits, while a search on "Why I love the Olympics" gets 139,000 hits. I decided to poll my friends and acquaintances to see why they feel the way they do about the games. I know the Vancouver Olympics are over now, but I'm still watching the portions my brother was able to tape for me (don't worry Olympic Commission, it's for private use--I have no TV service--and I plan to erase the tapes after viewing).

Talking to friends, there appears to be quite a homogeneity of opinion about both the appeal and about what turns people off. Most people who say they hate the games say they dislike the behavior of nations that attempt to breed athletes from absurdly young ages in national "medal factories." These national programs seem to arouse the same indignation as sweatshop child labor, and rightly so. The Olympics haters point to the secretive behavior of Olympic committees worldwide and the sometimes absurd protectiveness of the IOC of its trademarks and other rights. They point to the taint of money in the form of advertising and sponsorship that has attached to the games. They call the games elitist and object to investments governments make to host the games or support teams at taxpayers' expense. They point to the nationalism the Olympics can foster.

I am a fan of none of these things. In particular, I dislike the nationalism the games create. National pride is one thing, and not a bad thing necessarily, but nationalism is too often used as an excuse for the re-writing of history by people in power at the expense of people that have none. (In one of those odd little coincidences in life, I just read an excellent review in the most recent New York Review of Books that touches on this very subject--the misuses of history*.) Even some athletes profess to dislike the games--saying that World Cup events are the true test of the greatness of an athlete. In particular, they seem to resent the public's focus on a single set of competitions that happens only once every four years. (Yet, these same athletes seem to want the Olympic gold medal very much--often very, very much.)      

Most people who enjoy the games point to one thing; the hard work and dedication of individual men and women aiming to become the best a human being can be at bobsledding, or ski jumping, or javelin throwing, or just running fast. It seems a good thing to dedicate a lifetime to--or the best part of a lifetime.  Sport interests me when it is sport at its best--people at their best. And so I watch and I cheer for the winners--regardless of what country they come from.

But, there is another thing. Call me sentimental, but the very idea of the Olympic games--at least of the ancient Olympic games--still seems a noble one to me, regardless of how it has been altered over the years or tainted by this or by that. As a child, I loved learning that the whole Greek world was supposed to have laid down arms during the games. I first came across the idea reading A Child's History of the World (V.M. Hillyer, first published in 1924). I see the book is still in print. That doesn't surprise me. It was a delight to read. I remember pulling it out of the big dark wood bookcase with leaded-glass doors in our house in Dayton to start reading it, at my mother's suggestion--she had enjoyed it as a child. It was her copy that I read. I imagine it's been revised, rewritten, brought up to date. If I were to read it now, I might see the stories in an entirely different light, but I remember thinking then--I must have been about 10 or 11--that dropping everything for the games was a special idea.

Humanity having the good sense--even if occasionally, once every fours years--to set priorities in so hopeful a fashion is an idea to be celebrated, fervently to be wished for, even if halting all conflict is not achievable today or never in reality has been. By keeping a feeble flame lit under a vision of us as beings that are better than we actually are, we are given something to strive for. Imperfect as the Olypmics are, and although in modern times the games have been put off in order to fight wars--turning on its head the idea that so struck me as a child--the modern Olympics continue to suggest that we can be better if we try. For that reason and because of the phenomenal work of the athletes and the excellence of their performances, I love the games.

*"Drawing the Wrong Lesson," by Max Hastings, a review of Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, by Margaret MacMillan. The New York Review of Books, Volume LVII, No. 4, March 11, 2010. In another coincidence, this review mentions the movie Zulu, which I have just written about elsewhere in these pages.

[The Olympic rings are a trademark of the International Olympic Committee. Their use here is solely illustrative. No affiliation exists or is claimed between this blog and the IOC or the Olympic Games. It is not the author's intention to suggest endorsement by the IOC. Use is intended simply to visually alert the reader that the subject of this post is the Olympic games. (The need to say this sort of thing is one of the things people who hate the Olympics hate most about the Olympics.)]

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