Curmudgeon's Olympics Conundrum

I like the Olympics.

I like watching them. I can remember watching the Olympics when I was four years old; I saw Nadia Comăneci score the perfect 10 in 1976 (fun fact for you kids: that was the first ever; 32 years later, the perfect 10 score is obsolete). I was probably one of four people in the U.S. who was bothered when the split the summer and winter games up. I'd have been more irritated, but they left the Summer Games alone. I mean, really, who cares about the Winter Games?

The Olympics are, generally, more interesting to me than Presidential elections, so you can see where my attention goes in these years. And this is from someone who isn't particularly interested in most sports.

I hope you can see why there's a little bit of personal conflict for me over these games. I know about the human rights violations; I'm bothered by the creepy nationalism (really, did I need a scoreboard of how many medals the U.S. won starting yesterday?). It is one of the things I sometimes talk about with students. And I do believe that individual choice is the start of social change. So I could put my money where my political mouth is, right? Still, I'm still pretty compelled to watch, and I think I probably will see a lot of these games because I think the moment is more complex.

Part of it is clearly the history of the games for me. It isn't just that I've watched the games every chance I've had since I was old enough hold my own head up, though that in itself might be significant: I mean how many of you can't leave the house when your team is playing or "Desperate Housewives" or whatever is coming on? My father, who'd been overseas in the military, had part of the summer games off, and I remember watching some of them from the excellent vantage point of his lap way back in '76. So memory, too, plays a big role in this. But I think there's more than that.

More and more, I'm realizing that I was blessed with great teachers (in school and out) as I grew up, and one of the places that this was seen was in how they talked about ideals in relation to things like the Olympics. They did a nice job of cutting through the nationalism, even back in the '70's and '80's (again, for any younguns, that was when the U.S. was squaring off against its former arch-enemy, the U.S.S.R.). The way they talked about the games cut past those things, to talk about moments where group-think politics could be set aside and individuals could compete - and could express their own views. Before the 1980 games, I remember one of my Social Studies teachers making a point of talking about Jesse Owens and the political role he played (and what his presence dared, considering the life he lived when he was back in the States). And then, as well as you could with kids that age, we talked about the ironies of it in relation to the American Civil Rights movement's biggest successes coming significantly later.

And I know it smacks of Protestant work ethic/American "up by the boot straps" ideology of the self-made success, but I do like hearing about individuals who manage to do something out of whatever their national circumstances might be. Granted, the NBC dramatizations of the last few games were too much, but there's something to be said for the individual as narrative, don't you think?

And I liked that in those heady anti-Soviet years that sometimes we lost, though maybe I only like that in retrospect. If you want to make it a nationalist moment, to each their own, but please do be sure to note that the "us" you're subscribing sure does lose a lot. There's a lesson in that worth considering.

Maybe that's part of what I love: the Olympics often serve - and can, if talked about - serve as an interesting educational tool. And while I certainly hope that there will be boycotts, I also hope that people take a moment during them to see something "not us" and to think about it. That's part of why I'll be watching.


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