Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why I Am Devoted to the Olympics

I know it's not cool to be an Olympics fanatic.  It's become fashionable to take a "too cool for school" attitude toward the Olympic games.  Part of this can be attributed to our postmodern culture--it's necessary to have a detached regard of anything iconic, and if it can't be avoided, it must be consumed ironically.  But part of it, admittedly is that the Olympics are in many ways ridiculous.  It has become commercialized and the original meaning has been overshadowed by big money and consumerism. (But then again, the same has been said about Christmas.  Maybe we should call Olympian-bashers "Olympic Scrooges").  Yes, the Olympics have the potential to promote jingoism.  Yes, television coverage can turn overly saccharine.  Yes, some of the events that people can win medals for border on absurdity. Yes, the theme music is overplayed to the point of annoyance.  But it's possible to poke holes in anything.  I'd rather focus on what makes the Olympics great.  There are four aspects of the Olympiad that make me compelled to tune in--not only tune in casually, but tune in whenever possible.

4. Variety/Diversity: I consider myself a big sports fan.  I love to watch unscripted competition.  But as a busy and responsible adult, living in a saturated media climate, I've got to pick and choose what sports to consume.  I've determined that I have time to follow the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NCAA football and men's basketball.  If there was a Milwaukee water polo team, or even a soccer team, I still wouldn't watch those sports regularly.  But I am casually interested in those sports--as well as badminton, field hockey, volleyball, women's basketball, handball, and rowing.  Actually, there is no sport that I am not casually interested in.  When I was in high school, I read an article decrying how we only pay attention to certain sports when they are contested under the Olympic rings.  I vowed to make more of an effort to pay attention to the results listed in the back page of the USA Today sports section, to take note of (for example) when World Cup skiing events were held.  That vow lasted about as long as most New Year's resolutions.  But I don't at all regret breaking it.  I make no apologies for being casually interested in most of these sports, and the Olympics give the casual sports fan the ultimate variety in entertainment.

3. Crazy Cultural Clashes: We've got a well-defined sports culture in America.  We take sports seriously.  We get upset when athletes "show up" the competition.  We don't believe in quitting.  We don't believe in throwing our teammates under the bus.  We value an ideal of "sportsmanship" over honesty.  Other cultures also value competition, but they might have different values leading to different folkways.  I always appreciate the candor that European athletes show in interviews. I found Usain Bolt's antics in the last Olympics frustrating (how fast could he have gone had he not been celebrating before he crossed the finish line?) but still entertaining.  I was bemused by the North Korean women's soccer team choosing to walk off the field (sorry, "the pitch") when they were insulted by a scoreboard display of the South Korean flag.  You'd never see an American team doing something like that, but that's one element that makes the Olympics fun.  You just don't know how the diversity of cultures will mesh together.

2. Crossover Appeal: I think one of the main reasons that I read comic books is because superhero adventures take place in a "shared universe."  When Superman and Batman get together it is always exciting.  I'm convinced the Avengers movie was so successful commercially in part because Marvel Studios was able to bring the comic book crossover mindset to the movie industry.  But the sports world is built on parallel tracks.  ESPN may cover sports as if it is monolithic, but it is rare that teams or athletes in different sports compete together as part of a shared bill.  The Olympics are that rare occasion when the barriers that separate individual sports are collapsed and we get everything under one umbrella.  When a men's beach volleyball player, a fencer, and a woman's tennis player march together in the opening ceremony, it's a little like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman hanging out at the Hall of Justice.

1. A Fictional Ideal That Isn't Fiction: For everyone who is alive today, the modern Olympics have always existed (Besse Cooper of Georgia, the current oldest person alive, was born four months after the first modern Olympics were held).  Therefore, the Olympics are normal.  But it's crazy that such a thing exists.  The idea that virtually every country in the world would gather once every four years to compete against each other in 36 sports (for the summer games) in insane.  It's hard enough to organize a track meet for local high schools.  The concept and the scale of the Olympics is a bit of a historical accident. In the late 19th Century "World Expos" and "World Fairs" started to proliferate.  There was a sense that for the first time humankind had the ability to stage global events.  They really didn't, and the Olympics almost died in the early years (the 1904 St. Louis Olympics had 650 athletes--and 580 were Americans).  But somehow, the games survived and now people have lost sight of how unlikely they are.  I'd much rather live in a world with an overly commercialized and over-hyped spectacle like the Olympic Games than a world with no spectacle at all.


Blogger Ryan Southwick said...

definetly liked your final point and couldn't agree more with your main paragraph

6:11 PM  

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