The Games of the XXXI Olympiad

Some people hate the Olympics. They think it’s a waste of time and energy. Some even think that a gathering of people representing 205 countries should be concerned with more important matters like global warming or human trafficking or unequal distribution of resources. But there is something encouraging to me about all these countries getting together without drawing weapons (Ryan Lochte’s melodrama notwithstanding).

“The six colors [including the flag’s white background] combined in this way reproduce the colors of every country without exception. The blue and yellow of Sweden, the blue and white of Greece, the tri-colors of France and Serbia, The United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland, America, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Hungary, and the yellow and red of Spain, are placed together with the innovations of Brazil or Australia, with old Japan, and with new China. Here is truly an international symbol.” Baron Pierre de Coubertin

There’s something elemental and animal about physical competition, and when it doesn’t involve hate, intentional injury, and death, it can be uplifting and from the supremely selfish perspective of an artist, inspiring.

Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs
Still, I get the indifference, or worse, toward the Olympics; I’m no fan of synchronized swimming. I like basketball and golf but they don’t seem like Olympic events to me. I like the old school events – javelin, high jump, long jump, discus and hammer throw, but especially the shot put. Have a look at Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs from the USA, who won gold and silver in that event. If you saw them at the end of a bar your first thought would probably not be, “those guys look like Olympic athletes.” Not that anybody would mistake me for an Olympian. I don’t have the physique of a gymnast or weightlifter. Mine’s more like a runner’s but when I watch the runners from Kenya and Ethiopia (not to mention the USA) I expect they could spot me an 85-meter lead in a 100-meter race and still leave me in their dust at the finish line.

North Korea/South Korea selfie
I’m not a big sports person, but there’s more to the Olympics than sports. There was the first North Korea/South Korea selfie and the first gold medal for Fiji. In any gathering of 205 nations there’s bound to be politics involved, from Russian doping to Caster Semenya’s gender. In addition to politics there’s the universality of the human interest stories. There’s even a sport where men and women compete against each other and it’s the only one that involves athletes from another species. It’s not skunk wrestling or mole vaulting – it’s the six equestrian events.

The Olympics provide a crash course in geography and stir up all kinds of questions about other cultures. Like, what’s the problem with the people on these Caribbean Islands: Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Kitts & Nevis? How do they find enough in common with each other to form a single nation but not quite enough to give that nation one name? And the Dominican Republic & Haiti can’t come together on the same island, in contrast to England and Ireland, two distinct islands better left to their individual vices.


Christ the Redeemer and his hometown

A well-oiled Tongan
Even though I’ve never been further south in the Western Hemisphere than Venezuela, Rio looks like a beautiful and exciting place to spend some time. As I’ve never set foot in that splendid-looking sand I can’t vouch for the perfection it appears to be on my TV screen but I have been seduced by the music of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Jorge Ben, Joao and Astrud Gilberto and have experienced the magic of Brazil through their talents. There’s another undeniable draw to this international competition: some of the athletes are enjoyable to watch from a purely prurient perspective. For me it’s the females, though there was also a well-oiled dude from Tonga for those with different desires.

The men’s 4×100 relay gave a glimpse of why some of us are fascinated with the games. Here’s an event that goes back thousands of years, with racers passing a stick between their sweaty hands to see how fast a team can run. This year, there was a fine little race going on, with guys pouring their hearts out on the track, sweating and straining their bodies to their ultimate limits. Then somebody handed the stick to Usain Bolt and there was no more race. Instead, there was just an overindulgent adult playing a game with a bunch of kids who could only catch him if he fell down.

Leonidas of Rhodes
There’s also the lure of history in the Olympics – the Mary Lou Rettons, the Mark Spitzes, and Bruce/Caitlyn Jenners. There’s Cassius Clay and Jesse Owens. There’s Leonidas of Rhodes (“The Tripler” to his friends) who won three foot races, including one wearing bronze armor and carrying a shield, in the games of the 154th Olympiad in 164 BC. Then he won the same three races in the Olympics in 160, 156, and 152 BC, for a total of 12 individual Olympic Crowns, the equivalent of today’s gold medals. That record stood for 2,168 years, until Michael Phelps got his 13th a couple of Thursdays ago.

People run faster and jump longer and higher than they did a hundred years ago but not as well as they will a century from now. That might be the ultimate inspiration from these games. Either that or the opportunity to understand other cultures more intimately than we otherwise would.

Our man in Rio
I’ll leave the final word to our correspondent in Rio, George Santayana: “It was a curiously homeopathic remedy; avowedly a game, a great passion about nothing, a severe duty frivolously imposed. There was a kind of desperate joke in plunging into this sport, and suffering for it. It called out all the young animal instinct for play, for fighting, for rivalry. It had the saving grace of being hard physical exercise, of purging, rinsing, exhausting the inner man. It banished to the background all the complexity of human affairs, and restored the dull pleasure, the mute confidence, of merely living and being carried round with the spinning Earth in open-eyed sleep.”

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