The Rio Games come to a close

At the beginning of the Rio Olympics, I encouraged readers not to seek a world-historical significance in the games, certainly not to be taken in by the grandiose rubbish about "the Olympic movement," but to enjoy them nonetheless, to treat sport as, well, a sport. I hope everyone did because these were fun games to watch. Now that they have concluded, I think we can discern some smaller areas of significance.

First of all, we all now know the answer to the question: What could possibly go wrong when Ryan Lochte is the brains of an operation? The episode gave the United States a black eye by capturing an ugly American at his worst, not only vandalizing a small business owner, but then lying about it. If you saw Mr. Lochte interviewed, however, you realize the need to make allowances for his sheer stupidity: God bestowed upon this young man the gift of speed, not IQ.

Second, as many people commented, the performances by the U.S. Olympic team were a such a clear refutation of Donald Trump's worldview, it was wise of his campaign not to run ads during the competition. Trump claims "America never wins anymore" but so many Americans won so many medals, we almost got tired of winning. And, the athletes winning those medals came in all shapes and sizes and colors. There was the hijab-wearing fencer and the mixed-race decathlete and the black female sprinters and the gargantuan white male shot put throwers and the gay soccer players and the Latino boxers and, well, let's just say that the diversity of America's Olympic talent was greater than the diversity you would find amongst the crowd at a Trump rally.

There was also something different about the performances. You do not get to the top of a sport these days without enormous effort. I am sure some of the athletes are nice people, but you have to be pretty single-minded and highly disciplined to become the best in the world at anything, and I am betting you might not want to be seated next to one of these medalists at a dinner party of any great duration. But, the contrast with Trump is not only that athletes have to sweat to succeed -- as do the workers at Trump's hotels who want to unionize! -- it is that you do not get to the top of the podium by cutting a deal. You have to earn it. There are no special bankruptcy laws to bail you out. There are no financing schemes to allow you to leverage your assets. Only rigorous, disciplined work wins you an Olympic medal.

When my father and I spoke every night, he would report on what he had been watching. My dad is a huge fan of women's basketball and so on the days when the U.S. team had played he would tell me "UConn won again." Of course, it wasn't UConn, it was Team USA, but when it comes to women's basketball, what’s the difference? Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, and Tina Charles all made the trek to Rio, as did coach Geno Auriemma. On the other hand, if you wish to grow up to be a winning sprinter, you had better arrange to be born on the island of Jamaica, and if long distance running is your ambition, you should arrange to be born in Kenya. It is good that medals are won not just by big countries like the U.S. and China but by small countries, and poor countries, too.

The Washington Post threw itself into contortions that would make one of our winning gymnasts proud when the paper reported on badminton silver medalist P.V. Sindhu and wrestling bronze medalist Sakshi Malik, both from India. Apparently, the victories by these two women sparked a debate about the Indian culture practice of aborting female children because of the preference for boy babies. The Post, which never misses a chance to lionize abortion rights advocates, coined a word I have never encountered before, "feticide," to describe what we normally call abortion, the killing of an unborn child or fetus before birth. I suppose "feticide" will keep them from the charge of "humanizing the fetus." Heaven forbid anyone at the Post would admit that something other than the volition of the pregnant mother should determine whether an unborn child is to live or die. A chink in the armor? What could possibly be considered feminist or pro-women about allowing a practice like killing unborn girls because you are unwilling to admit that a libertarian determinism regarding "choice" trumps all other considerations?

The Brazilians do us Catholics proud. My reservations about the misunderstanding of symbolism in the ceremonies remain, but still, the Brazilians took the harsh, paganish rituals and baptized them. They entertained us with music that could not be less Wagnerian or militaristic if you tried. They took a ritual created by Hitler for the Nazi Olympics of 1936, the torch relay and lighting of the Olympic cauldron, and turned it into something sensual, with a cauldron backed by an undulating series of mirrors that was polymorphous and avant-garde, not the kind of thing you would expect to see in Nuremberg. The images were freeflowing, colorful, rainbow-like. And, the casual, live and let live approach to life of the great city by the bay was the exact opposite of the propaganda to which recent tyrants, like Putin and the Chinese Communist Party, have put the Olympics. A friend who went down for the Games and returned today reported that he had never seen such beautiful and friendly people in his life as he found in Rio. NBC’s anchors stuck to the adjective "high-spirited." I thought the whole thing Latin and Catholic. Calvin was smart to confine his preaching to colder, northern climes. He would have bombed in Rio.

The poverty in Rio is astounding and it will not be helped by the price tag of hosting an Olympic Games. All those venues cost money to build and their usefulness now that the Games are completed is doubtful. But, I do not want to be puritanical about spending. There are those who complain that the money spent building a beautiful church is money better spent helping the poor, but you never hear that complaint from the poor. They want beauty in their lives too and where else but the church are they admitted on equal terms? The poor don't get to lounge by the ocean in the Hamptons or dine at Le Cirque. But, when you visit Notre Dame in Paris or St. Peter's in Rome or La Candeleria in Rio, the poor know that these venues are theirs too. I hope the poor in Rio enjoyed the Games, the excitement, the attention. They have never let their poverty prevent them from throwing a party.

"Seek joy where joy may be found" has always been good advice. If you watched the Olympics and sought a model of peaceful relations for the world, as the President of the International Olympic Committee said last night, you would have been disappointed. Peaceful relations between nations are different from peaceful relations between individuals and besides, the Olympics are about competition, and our world suffers from a surplus of that. But, if you tuned in as I did these past two weeks with the more modest goal of enjoying yourself, I hope you were as satisfied as I was. The Rio Games were fun, no more and no less, and that is enough.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.] 


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