I am an Olympics FIEND. The Olympic theme song gives me chills. I get weepy when I see pictures of Kerri Strug in the arms of Bela Karolyi. The movie Cool Runnings… I mean, come on. Think about 2008: Michael Phelps eats 30,000 calories of pasta a day and swims to glory by a fingertip’s length in a Chinese pool! Misty May-Treanor redefines the limits of grunting and leg musculature on the sand! The marathon runners sweat more liquid in a matter of hours than I consume in a day’s worth of diet soda! During the Olympics, humans rewrite the boundaries that previously limited us: boundaries both physical and cultural. Yes, if we listen to NBC, the Olympics are the time that all nations set aside their grievances to join for sixteen days of friendly competition between amateur athletes. Except LeBron. (Side note: I still don’t understand why NBA players are allowed to play on Team USA. This has been explained to me more than once and I can never seem to wrap my head around it. I guess because it’s cool to have a bunch of dudes who wouldn’t normally sweat it out on the same side of the court doing it in the name of Amurrican exceptionalism? Whatever.)
I have spent enough hours of my life devouring articles about doping and Bela Karolyi beating up his Soviet gymnasts and that guy who rigged his pentathlon epee to record invalid hits to understand that the Olympics have a seedy underbelly, one that touches on a lot of the subjects about which I have A Lot of Feelings. (Eating disorders? Check! Nationalism? Check! Competitors from third-world countries being portrayed in the media like animals with special talents in YouTube videos rather than human beings with extraordinary abilities achieved without the help of intravenous Gatorade? Check!) I also firmly believe that the pursuit of glory and excellence through the honing of extraordinary abilities is the key to overcoming our insatiable hunger for power. (This is why I dance and write rather than, like, stage coups or babysit.) I don’t think that we’ll ever overcome said insatiable hunger for power, but I believe in the value of forgetting about it for awhile.
The Olympics are also an incredibly powerful forum for political protest. Think about the international tensions revealed by Olympics past: individual athletes all the way up to entire nations using the most public of stages to make known their objections to totalitarian regimes and nations who commit egregious human rights violations. The world pays attention to the Olympics and expects that nations will be on their best, most socially appropriate behavior. A nation is tarnished when their evil or cheating spirit is revealed or highlighted during the Olympics.
That said, a lot of evil is buried beneath the pomp and bluster of the Olympics. A lot of elite athletes only make it to that level because they’re basically beaten to a pulp and reshaped into an unnatural state of physiological excellence between early childhood and early adulthood. Then they’re usually dropped like a hot potato to wallow in their own depression. Athletes are frequently a bruised and bloodied conduit for a country’s selfish ambitions. Save a few big-name sports that get a lot of attention, Olympic athletes don’t really get the glory that comes to, say, NFL players. (When was the last time you heard about the silver medalist for shotput getting away with rape because “most girls would feel lucky to have sex with someone like him?” Okay, sorry, not the time or place.)
I don’t think that the abuse that athletes go through and the lifelong psychological challenges that accompany their achievements are necessarily worth it. That said, I love the underlying spirit of the Olympics and I hope that one day we stop trying to reach superhuman greatness and can be happy with our own healthy, functional bodies. (Um, that’s a whole different topic I could go off on for like seven hundred more paragraphs, but let’s let that go for a second and keep talking about the embodiment of patriotism or whatever multisyllabic sociocultural bullshit I’m word-vomiting about right now.) I think that the Olympics are a symbol of what globalization could become, were the hunger for power to be quieted.
I have long been a proponent of faking it ’til one makes it. Whether this is an appropriate metaphor to deploy in the name of international politics is debatable, but the eternal optimist in me believes that any measure of international polypartisanship, however superficial, is a step in the right direction. World leaders pretending to be civil to one another and shaking hands as they fudge their underage gymnasts’ birth certificates so they can be the world champions in both math scores AND the uneven bars is better than world leaders threatening to blow up one another’s capital cities (I know, North Korea is never a good example, but this is what came up when I Googled “world leaders threaten each other” and I’m too lazy to find something that doesn’t source from a country whose latest exploits likely have Walt Disney rolling over in his grave).
We emulate what we see; when we see the arts–and at the elite level, I consider athleticism an art–taking precedence over politics, at least on a surface level, we leave with the sense that we are drawn together by a higher cause than power.* The Olympics are a celebration of our diversity and our mutual pursuit of excellence. To compete with one another is to demonstrate our respect for one another and to express our common cause: to push the boundaries of what the human body can achieve. The best way to learn from someone is to lose to them and the most productive way to lose is to learn from the victor. Competition, visceral and meaningful exposure to the abilities, techniques, and strengths of others, is the key to achieving greatness. (This is totally counter to what I believe about dance, but that’s because competitive dance is about who can do the most pirouettes in a fugly, hunched over imitation of a position or, like, whose crotch-baring tilt reaches the most aesthetically displeasing angle. Also, hair-flinging.)
I feel like the Olympics are about awe: the sensation experienced by athletes (and coaches and announcers who were once athletes) who recognize and admire the skill of their competitors. In the competitive arena, the level of expertise of your opponent is more important than the color of his jacket. Set politics aside; engage in a fierce and primal competition; learn from your opponent. At the level where these athletes compete, every participant has something to offer. The Olympics, at the heart, are about skill and the pursuit of excellence regardless of the federated nature of our world.
To act, at least, that we consider the pursuit of excellence a more respectable path than the destruction of our enemies is to reject, if only superficially and for a moment, the pursuit of absolute power at all costs. After all, if Kim Jong-un successfully obliterates all of the enemies of North Korea, that water polo match in Rio in 2016 is gonna be awfully boring.
I could write about this for hours! Maybe, in light of the Olympics, I’ll turn this into a summer series of ruminations on the philosophy of sport and the unifying spirit of competition. Or I’ll just rank each country’s uniform based on the glitter-to-spandex ratio. Whichever is more productive for the quest for world peace (considering the influence of beauty pageants on that topic, I’m leaning toward the latter).
P.S. “Polypartisanship” is an up-and-coming word and I am totally on the bandwagon.
P.P.S. I think that by this measure, I just called curling an art form. But who am I to judge?
P.P.P.S. I know I’m kind of abusing the royal “we” here, but I like to pretend I’m an Olympic athlete sometimes. Or maybe I have tapeworm. You decide.