dick button is the best crotchety old sports commentator

February 16, 2010

I’m watching the Olympics right now. The Olympics are all about spectacle, so it goes without saying that I freaking love them. Certain aspects annoy me (the repetition of certain facts, the way the announcers talk about everything like it’s a momentous event, the annoying biopics), but overall I get completely wrapped up in the pageantry and emotion.

But while I’m getting upset for the skaters who fall and getting emotional over the first Canadian gold medal earned at a home Olympics, a part of me is also viewing all of this from a disinterested distance. Why do we all get so worked up about the Olympics? Why should a gold medal at the Olympics matter more than a first place finish at the world figure skating championships? How is competing in soccer at the summer Olympics different from competing at the World Cup?

I think some of this is obviously due to the time element—a lot of things can happen to an athlete in four years, and if you blow this shot at the Olympics and you might not get a second. And of course this is the only athletic meet that really brings together competitors from all kinds of different sports (more so than events like the X Games, even).

But beyond this, I think the truth is that the Olympics are a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ve built them up as the be-all, end-all of athletic achievement. A chance to stand on the world stage, representing your country (with all the socio-political import that implies), and compete while everyone watches. And as consumers, as viewers, we buy into that hype. For two weeks, we suddenly care about sports we haven’t heard of since the last Olympics. We stay up late, we bemoan the tragic losses and celebrate the iconic wins. We marvel at the sacrifices that athletes are willing to make just to get to this point, at the kind of ascetic existences they undertake to be able to do ridiculous things with their bodies before injury or age take them out of the competition.

I’m aware of the constructed nature of the Olympics. I’m aware of the ways that the competition itself and the way it’s produced manipulate the emotions of the viewers as well as the athletes. But I still buy into it. I still love the drama and the pageantry. I love how, sitting here alone with a beer and my knitting, I cannot help but be reminded of other Olympics. And I think that’s the real value of this kind of cultural event: I am certainly not the only person with fond memories of staying up late on a school night to watch figure skating with my mother. I cannot be the only person who started to learn about world geography from the locations of Olympics past, or the only person who started to understand world politics via biopics on the Romanian gymnastics team.

In a world of hostilities and cynicism, I think it’s nice to come together every once in a while to celebrate human achievement, even if those achievements are ultimately not terribly meaningful. The Olympics will not save the world, or even change it very much. But if they can pull Americans out of their cultural bubble enough to make many of them actually care about curling every four years, then perhaps they are not totally worthless after all.


One comment

  1. my mom and i both had tuesday off and we spent three hours on the phone “watching” (my mom, having the television, described what was happening to me, not having the television) curling. the magic of the olympics.

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