The Olympics

I was going to write about dialect (still will) but decided that a few thoughts on the Olympics would be more timely.
The Olympics are so weird and cool. If you just say “Oh, it’s an international athletics competition,” it doesn’t fully capture the compelling strangeness that is the Olympics. For decades, almost the entire WORLD gets together to pitch their trained athletes (and, in some ways, their respective philosophies of how to do things…see USA vs. China) at one another. It almost has that ancient ring to it of “I’ll send my best swordsman, and you send your best and we’ll see who wins.”
What fascinates me about the Olympics, in no particular order:
Sports, Suddenly
The truth is I don’t watch a lot of sports. My chief “sport” has always been running, with a little bit of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu thrown in, and whenever I encountered organized sports as a child I balked at the organization bit. Rules and regulations befuddled me. What do you mean you can’t tackle people in soccer? Basketball? Why can’t you tackle in ALL the sports? (In retrospect, I probably would have liked Rugby…) Why do we have to do it like that?
My favorite game was this nonsense one we used to play in the Marine Corps that employed every ball the gym would lend us (football, soccer ball, tennis ball), had almost no rules, and ALL the tackling. It was briefly abolished for creating too many injured Marines.
The point? I still don’t follow sports so much. I can truly enjoy the spirit of a game if I care about a particular team or player, and every now and then I’ll appreciate an event, but it’s usually not my thing.
So, yes, I’m one of those. When the Olympics are on, it’s this awesome opportunity to look in on a world of incredible talent and athleticism…a world I know very little about. I love being astonished by the athletes strength, capacity, calmness, and resilience. I’m just stunned looking at some young woman ten years my junior and thinking, “wow, you are the best in the WORLD at what you do, and you are tough as nails.” I just love that.
Politics, Subtly
Ostensibly we put politics aside for the Olympics. It’s part of the spirit of the games, of coming together despite our conflicts and differences. And that is pretty astonishing, considering how many conflicts are ALWAYS ongoing and actually influencing daily lives. If you or I or someone else are somewhat personally insulated from the effects of these conflicts, do not for one moment imagine that is the case for everyone. What outrages you via twitter is actually a live and painful reality for a lot of people.
It is a strange and wonderful thing that all of this can be set aside to come together and honor one another’s athletes. It is also not totally accurate.
What do I mean by this? Here are some examples of how politics and conflict are ever-present in the Olympics, in ways both good and bad:
-The first ever refugee contingent present at the Olympics this year. The Olympians in this contingent are getting to compete under a unique status–neither for their country of residence, nor for their home country–but are also bringing attention to the plight of refugees in different parts of the world.
-The host country, whoever that happens to be, usually wants to send a message to the world about who they are–about their status in the global community, and about what they believe.
-The Beijing Olympics had one of the most praised opening ceremonies in a long time–they were also controversial because of the intense disagreements regarding human rights concerns in China. At least in America, there was as much discussion about the political state of things as there was about the grandeur of the ceremonies.
-The 1972 Munich games, wherein the games were used by a terrorist group as an opportunity to kill Israeli athletes on what would inevitably be a world stage, impossible for anyone to ignore.
-Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. This is one of the most powerful examples, I believe. Though America struggled (and often still struggles) with race and injustice, it had a chance to show what it stood for–what we aspire to–in the very face of the racial animosity and discrimination already being advocated by the Nazi regime at the time. No, Jesse Owens could not stop WWII or the Holocaust by his mere presence, but who knows what impression he made on young minds not yet in thrall to Nazi ideology? The US had its own extremely dangerous and damaging eugenicist movement in the 20’s and 30’s, and we could have joined in the death parade. Instead, we chose to stand against and in contrast to that.
The list goes on. The Olympics can be an opportunity to put on a certain face, to take a certain stand. To do good or ill, both actually or symbolically.
National Pride, Healthily
You can both enjoy your own nation’s athletes, and rejoice whole-heartedly with others. If a country that has never received a medal before receives one, this fills us with joy. We enjoy their pride. We are affected by their tears. We are truly glad for them. It’s the kind of wholesome pride that leaves ample room to enjoy the successes of those who do not represent you.
Humility, Constantly
May seem like a contradiction to the previous point, but isn’t. A strong, happy, lovely nineteen year old woman is the best in the whole wide world at something. Something very difficult. Something I could never do. That is truly awesome. And humbling. In a good way.
It is also encouraging. Have you seen all those athletes that finish on track or in gymnastics with a limp? Some (Kerri Strug) still had hope to medal. Others had lost all chance of it–and yet they continued. They wanted to finish, no matter what, because that is what they had set out to do.
And what about Kerri Walsh Jennings? This one was particularly inspirational to me as a mom. When she won in the 2012 London Olympics, she was 5 weeks pregnant with her third child. Yes, she is a brilliant athlete–the best–but also a loving mother. I know a lot of people look down on motherhood as not being influential or important or deserving of any accolades, and they loathe when motherhood is brought up regarding a woman with a popular profession. I do not think this is very fair to moms. To see a mom–who is proud of being a mom!–doing something so awesome gives me great joy and encouragement.
So for all the strangeness, and all the conflicts, the Olympics can be pretty amazing, and I think I have enjoyed them more this year than I have in a while.




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