There exists a handful of default scenarios tied to any Olympics, and most of us are familiar with them. There’s the athlete who overcame enormous personal obstacles, followed by the athlete with a family member who is not in good health and thus the athlete is dedicating his or her performance – I don’t need to run them all down for you. I bring them up to get us to the most sincerely beautiful and meaningful of them all: The inevitable “Why can’t we all just get along like this every day?” speech that arrives near the end of every Olympics.
This year the duty of delivering that message was split between two NBC commentators who on the last night of the Olympics threaded the needle by reminding us that we can meet and compete in peace, while they avoided opening any can of worms about Chinese protestors rounded up and put in jail to help keep things quiet during our global moment of Zen.
Additionally, there was some level of responsible reporting on the environmental hazards of Beijing in advance of the Olympics, specifically the particulate – clouded air and the waters clogged with pollution-fed algae that threatened boat-related events. One can haggle about the traction of that responsible reporting since all of it came after Beijing had been selected by the IOC to host the Olympics, by means of whatever process that committee uses to make those choices. For more information on exactly how that works, contact the Utah State Comptroller’s Office at 1-800-OLY-CASH.
There is much pure and resonant beauty in the Olympics, beginning with the very simple core idea of a world athletic competition that somehow exists and succeeds outside of the more unpleasant day-to-day transactions between the nations of earth. That idea has too often been corrupted by those seeking to use the Olympics as a stage for more of that unpleasantness, to put it mildly. But Beijing, more than any Olympics I can recall, most deeply stirred sentiments concerning the very nature of making florid presentations of world harmony oblivious to real world machinations.
That’s possibly because I wasn’t alive to remember the Olympics of 1936, when America and other nations considered boycotting the Olympics in Berlin because participation might be viewed as support of Germany’s regime. Hopefully still taught in schools is the story of black American competitor Jesse Owens winning four gold metals at those Olympics. Perhaps not as well distributed is the footnote that while staying in Berlin, Owens was free to enter public places and use public transportation in ways that would not have been possible in parts of the United States at that time. Maybe Germany was putting on a good show, just as China did the past few weeks. Owens was black; he was not a follower of the Falun Gong, and he did not wear a “Free Tibet” t-shirt to the closing ceremonies.
Perhaps it’s in those overt “look at us, we’re not like our bad press” moments that the Olympics does successfully contribute to world peace by creating opportunity for a kind of striving. It was said of the better than expected clear skies over Beijing that those clear blue Olympic days might give the people of China the incentive to demand improvement in their polluted environment. If all those rounded up and held by Chinese authorities in advance of the Olympics are now quietly released, could that be a glint of light revealing the possibility for more blue skies?
Before we cue the audio guy to spin “We Are the World,” let’s not forget some honest if not necessarily beautiful Olympic moments. There was the intense curiosity about the age of some of the Chinese athletes, the lip-synch singing by a pretty girl instead of the actual singer, the fake fireworks edited into the opening ceremonies, and that red-hot (nationalist?) competition between China and the U.S. concerning most gold medals vs. most overall medals won. (Is there a Chinese term for “Kick Ass”? Let’s hope not.) Then there’s the postscript, which at the time of this writing includes two Olympic gold medalists booked on Dancing with the Stars. And if Nike doesn’t strike a deal with Michael Phelps, then I guess I have a shot at endorsing their off-shore non-union wages-produced shoes.
A stand-up comic friend of mine used to taunt unresponsive audiences into paying more attention to his topical and political jokes by saying, “So, what do we know about government here in Santa’s Magic Village?” One might argue that since 9/11 we no longer embrace any naïve notions of simply laying down our weapons and singing songs. The Olympic village, that rarified cluster of dorms and shops at any Olympics where, instead of oil and the machineries of global economics and war, the currency of exchange is youthful energy and the quest for excellence… that’s a real place. It’s very tiny, and very temporary. Still, it’s encouraging to know we can set that up every few years.