The Olympics have begun, time for armchair philosophers who blog to ponder the significance of the quadrennial event. One article claims the Olympics have deep religious roots, while another wonders if the Emperor Theodosius was right to ban them for their paganism. Others wonder about the peace-building significance of sport, a doubtful proposition when you consider the sheer volume of violence since the modern games were born in 1896. Even Pope Francis sent good wishes to the athletes and especially to those competing on the refugee team.
Watching the opening ceremonies from Maracana Stadium in Rio Friday night, I realized I would have to write about any event that is so public and so liturgical. In two words: Non placet. In the past couple of decades opening ceremonies have been stalked by an artistic sensibility that is totally out of place and thoroughly off-pitch. As far as I can tell, this unfortunate trend began at the Albertville Winter Games in 1992, when a Cirque du Soleil-style presentation tried to present a story about the host country, instead of just letting the athleticism speak for itself. So, four years ago, in London, we saw a symbolic tribute to, among other things, the National Health Service. And, four years before that, we saw that the totalitarian preference for grandiosity did not die in Nuremberg but is alive in Beijing, where a series of symbolic displays using tens of thousands of actors, showed the purported beauty and coherence of modern China, so coherent that they need a police state to keep it in check.
In Rio, there were representations of the indigenous peoples, and then the explorers from Portugal, and then the importation of slaves from Africa. There was a representation of the rain forests around the Amazon and of the great river itself. There were representations of the varied areas of Brazil. We know about these representations, in Rio not because the symbolism was obvious. We know about these representations because the anchors explained them to us. Call me old-fashioned, but when a symbol needs to be explained, it has not succeeded as a symbol. (I make allowances here for certain cross-cultural points that might need explication. This is something wholly other.) The undulating movements of the people and the ribbons and the props were all very beautiful, but I would not have known it represented the Amazon unless Matt Lauer told me so. The ships from Portugal were pretty clear, and the yokes of the slaves too. But, on the whole, these displays suffer the way much modern art suffers: It may be meaningful to the person who makes it, but it leaves the rest of us in the dark.
I have vivid memories of the 1976 Games in Montreal because my dad and I went for the first ten days. We attended the opening ceremonies, which then did not have the weird storytelling aspect: I recall some Native American dancing, Queen Elizabeth II, the parade of nations, and the lighting of the cauldron. It was pretty cool and the Montreal stadium was, and is, a wonder. We went to some gymnastics and swimming events, which are always at the beginning of the games. We trekked out to the island in the St. Lawrence River to watch the rowing. The highlight was team handball, which we had never seen before but which is big in central and eastern Europe. There were plenty of tickets available and it was the best game to watch. In addition to the sporting events, each day, we spent some time in the old city or in the modern downtown area, mingling with people from around the world, trading pins, swapping tickets. It was fun.
Four years later, a group of fellow high schoolers and I spent three days in Lake Placid at the winter games. We got to see Eric Heiden win one of his gold medals in speed skating and we watched the U.S. hockey team beat Rumania en route to their "miracle on ice" defeat of the Soviet Union in the semi-finals and subsequent gold medal performance in the finals. We watched a ski jumping event which is when I think I developed vertigo for the first time. Lake Placid was the last small town to host the games, and you could not help but bump into athletes and spectators from around the world as you made your way down the main street. It was cold, but it was fun too.
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That's what the Olympics should be: fun. Those who want them to uphold some ideal expect too much. It is healthy to see humans compete in non-violent ways and human excellence in any field is a thing to appreciate, even if you might not want to live next door to an Olympic athlete because the training regimen takes over their whole lives and they may not be the best neighbor or the most interesting person. The doping scandals should not surprise us: When so much is at stake, of course people will cheat if they think they can get away with it.
What is ironic and sad is that the people who run the Olympics have endangered their own project. Instead of noble ideals, the tales of graft and corruption are both endemic and enormous. Because the games are awarded to a different city every four years, there are enormous construction contracts to be awarded, a lot of money changing hands. Now, with so many different sports, the need for more venues is large. (In Rio, there are four nearly identical indoor arenas right next to each other: How will they be used afterwards?) Ever since the Munich games, cities have lost more than they have gained from hosting the Olympics.
It is time to give the games a permanent home, as many people are finally recognizing, and the obvious place for that permanent home is Greece. Athens held the games in 2004 so they still have most of the venues. The country could use the quadrennial infusion of tourist cash. The weather mostly cooperates in late summer. Unless some such solution is devised, the only people willing to shell out the money to stage the games will be dictators who do not care about the cost but see the Olympics as a good tool in their propaganda efforts.
None of this detracts from the excitement of the competition so enjoy watching the games. After the bizarre spectacle that is U.S. politics this year, the Olympics are a nice break. Rio is lush and warm and beautiful, as are its people. But, don't expect the Olympics to bring about better understanding among peoples or anything like that. It is entertainment, good entertainment, no more or less, and if you get a chance to attend them some time, jump at it.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]