The Olympic Games open tonight and for the next two weeks, all other news will take a back seat as the leading athletes from around the world compete in London. There is something about the simplicity of athletic competition that appeals to our hearts: Usain Bolt, the Jamaican superstar sprinter who literally ran away with the men’s 100 meter dash four years ago may or may not face a challenge from his competitors, but no one will get to the top of the medal stand on the strength of influence peddling, insider trading, still less with any kind of compromise. The athletes win because they are, to quote the Olympic motto, swifter, higher or stronger than the competition.
Sometimes, the Olympics run smack into politics. Yesterday’s dust-up over Mitt Romney’s remarks was small potatoes. The 1936 Games allowed Hitler to demonstrate the superiority of the Nordic race, until a man named Jesse Owens exposed the foolishness of Nazi racial mythology. In the 1970s, the fight was over the presence of teams from Rhodesia and South Africa, still led by apartheid regimes, as the other African countries threatened to boycott the Games. In 1980, the U.S. led a boycott of the Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The favor was returned in 1984 when the Soviets led a boycott of the Los Angeles Games, with only Romania sending athletes from behind the Iron Curtain to Los Angeles. There was great debate about awarding the 2008 Games to Beijing given China’s many human rights violations. And, of course, there was the tragedy of Munich when a resurgent, and resurgently peaceful Germany, tried to showcase itself in clear contrast to the 1936 Games with pastel colors and a festive, low-key, Bavarian charm, only to have a group of terrorists abduct and murder eleven Israeli athletes. It was horrible, not because politics had intruded into sport: There are political reverberations in almost all human activities. It was horrible because once again, in the heart of Europe, Jews were being singled out and killed. The evil past made its presence felt anew, leaving everyone with a sickening feeling in their hearts.
The cultural aspect of the Olympics is more interesting and here my memories get all mixed up with my ideas. Growing up, I was an Olympic-aholic. I watched everything. I read everything. At age ten, I could name every city that had hosted every Olympics, winter or summer, recall many tales of athletic prowess, and could tell from a picture which stadium was from which Olympic city, and this before the age of Google Images, although I remember it taking a long time to find a picture of the stadium in Antwerp which hosted the games in 1920. There was something about the pageantry, now expressed in my liturgical sensibilities, that appealed to me no doubt. Early on, architecture had fascinated me and the Olympics always provided interesting examples of that great art, especially the velodromes, those strange buildings constructed to host the cycling competitions. And, of course, watching athletes of great skill is, and remains, a simple pleasure.
In 1976, my Dad and I went to the first ten days of the Montreal Olympics. We attended the Opening Ceremonies in the then unfinished Olympic stadium, with Queen Elizabeth II in attendance. We watched a young American, Peter Kormann, who had been dating a friend from our hometown, become the first American man to win a gymnastics medal in competition with the Soviet Union, a bronze in the floor exercises, and we watched Nadia Comaneci dazzle the world, earning the first perfect score in Olympic history. (Is anyone else frustrated by the new scoring which no longer awards a perfect “10”?) We went to some swimming and diving events, and out to the island in the St. Lawrence River for rowing. The highlight, for me at least, was team handball, a game I had never known of before given its relative lack of popularity in the U.S. It was amazing and there were always plenty of available tickets, so we went back several times. When not watching an event, people from all over the world mingled in downtown Montreal, one of the more charming cities in the world, trading pins and tickets, or swapping recommendations for restaurants. It was a great ten days.
Four years later, a group of high school classmates and I went to Lake Placid for three days to watch the Winter Games. This was the last time the Winter Games were held in a small resort town. No one was allowed to drive into Lake Placid: You parked about ten miles outside the city and grabbed a bus into the center of the town or to the skiing venues on the mountains. This has the happy effect of turning the streets of Lake Placid into pedestrian thoroughfares. You ran into athletes as well as spectators as you made your way through town. We watched Eric Heiden win won of his record-setting five individual gold medals in speed skating and watched the young U.S. hockey team beat Romania, earning them the right to play their next game against the Soviet Union, a game that went down in the history books as the “Miracle on Ice.” It only required a single glance at the tall ski jumping towers to alert my vertigo to the fact that ski jumping is something I would go to my greave having never undertaken.
It was fun. Lots of fun. And, I do not regret any of it. But, still, with the years, I have learned that there are more important human qualities than being swifter, or higher or stronger. Now, I prefer humbler, smarter, and a sense of closure. I have realized that the newsreels of the ceremonies and pageantry surrounding the 1936 Games hosted by Hitler, with all their propagandistic effect, were not something merely frozen in time: The 2008 Opening Ceremonies in Beijing, pronounced “thrilling” and “exhilarating” and every other adjective of praise by the commentators, were in fact “chilling” and unintentionally revealing. The Chinese government wanted to wow the world, and they did, with their thousands upon thousands of actors, all moving in tandem, but the amount of control displayed on the field refracted the darkness of the amount of control the regime exercises over its citizens. As much as I decry the hyper-individualism of our U.S. culture, the absence of any sense of individualism in the Beijing stadium was frightening.
This year, the Brits approach the Games with, I think, just the right attitude. Better to say, after the propaganda of Beijing, the cultural traits of the British people is precisely what the Games need. In this morning’s paper, after commenting upon the flap over Mr. Romney’s remarks, a British television producer had this to say: “Come on, this is Britain. We’re not going to do thousands of marching Chinese. There’s just something about the British character that isn’t good at getting all excited about something like the Olympics. You have this thing in America of being all gung-ho and saying, ‘Oh, this is going to be great,’ and ‘Yes, we can.’ But, we’re not like that. We say, ‘Well, yes, we might. It rather depends on the weather.” Nothing like a bit of British phlegm to remind the world that the Games are games and meant to be fun.