Put away the fine China—the Olympics are over

(Originally posted 9/1/2008, 3:15 a.m.)

(Oh, boy, I’d been waiting all week to use that title!)
The guests have gone home, and the clean-up has begun. The party’s over. Right?

I’d been wanting to put down in writing my feelings about the Olympics for the past few weeks now, but time just kept getting away from me. So with the world’s biggest sporting/political/global hug event having come to an end recently, I thought that my chance was over. So we didn’t spend a whack-load of dollars and get a whack-load of medals. Life goes on. Who wants to keep hearing about the same old stories and opinions, right? Apparently, quite a few people, including some of Canada’s most well-known journalists, do. Here we are, a week after the closing ceremonies have taken place, after the athletes have all flown back to their homes and their day jobs or to more training, and scribes are still wringing their hands, with words like “mired in mediocrity” and “more funding required!”. Apparently, even once the Olympic Games end, they never really end.

So I’m going to get my own two cents in, and let the thing die (at least for two more years). These have been my random thoughts on the Oh-Lympics!

1) I started out insisting that for the first time, I was going to boycott watching the Olympics, other than the opening ceremonies; I was going to make my own personal statement. And this was a hard decision for me, because I’ve always loved watching sports. Even if I’m not a die-hard, rah-rah-rah fan of any particular sport or team, I’ve always enjoyed the spirit of competition, and the beauty of various sports. The most obvious reason for my boycott was China hosting the Games. Put together, all of the issues, including the oppression of Tibet; the razing of homes and businesses; the national shushing and intimidation of their own citizens; the ludicrous amount of $40 billion spent in a nation where a significant proportion of the population is poor; and the desperate and blatant attempts to make everything “perfect” on the surface, made these Beijing-hosted Games quite unappealing to me.
There was another significant reason for my boycott, one that’s been nagging at the back of my mind in recent Olympic Games: It’s terribly hypocritical of the Olympics movement to say that we should all live happily together on one planet, should be loving our brothers and sisters in this celebration of togetherness, etc., and then turn around and encourage waving our individual flags and shouting, “We’re better than you! Our country is more important than yours because we have a coloured medallion hanging around the neck of one of our citizens!” Where’s the “one happy family sharing a special time together” feeling? I hate the segregation-by-nation is part of the Olympics competition. What is supposed to be, on the surface, a celebration of global unity always becomes a case of one-upmanship between nations. There’s a lot of chest-thumping and victory-dancing going on at these things.
So yeah, my boycott was all set . . . until the second day. That’s when Beloved Husband reminded me that we have impressionable kids (especially The Girl) who worship what I do, say, and think, and that it wasn’t fair to share with them such a strong political view, when they deserve to just innocently experience the good things that the Olympics represent. Okay, I could see his point; the kids just want to see some fireworks, dancing, and heroic feats on the gymnastics floor or the cycling tracks. Some other time then, when they’re a tad older. And with that, I was back in. Truth be told, I’m a little glad that I broke my boycott, because I really did get into the excitement of watching sporting competitions and rooting for the home team at 4 in the morning.

2) What’s with the cell phone calls and the jumping-around during the Parade of Nations? Yeah, I know, I sound like so old crabby fuddy-duddy. But here’s my take: It’s the official introduction of the honoured athletes, during an Opening Ceremony. The word “ceremony” is supposed to refer to notions such as formality and dignity. True, some nations’ athletes look a little too serious, like they’re not having fun at all (really, no one needs to look that solemn). However, my thoughts are that being introduced to your country and to the world means walking calmly, smiling, waving, and enjoying the support and good wishes that are being bestowed. To throw away such a moment of honour just to yak into a phone or to prance and jump around like a toddler on a sugar-high is beyond me. Yes, it is nice to call your family halfway around the world to say, “Hi! Turn on your tv! Look at me! I’m here!”, but isn’t it enough that your relatives and friends see you on tv (trust us, your moment is being captured forever on film)? Why chatter away like it’s just another Friday night? And yes, I know some of those cell phones were provided to you by the media, so that you could be seen sharing your moment of joy with loved ones. Doesn’t mean that the media got it right, though.
I’ve read that some parents are awfully proud to receive that phone call. The way I see it, if it were any other once-in-a-lifetime event, like a graduation or wedding ceremony (there’s that pesky word again!), would you want to look back on photos or videos years from now and see your kid’s face, half-hidden by some cell phone, chatting away casually, while others in the same situation are calmly and proudly waving to the crowd that supports them? Or would you say to your child, “Relax, enjoy the moment just as it is. There will be plenty of time later to chat”?

3) Why should we spend millions of dollars to fund Olympic dreams, when it all adds up to individual achievement and glory? Angry journalists and letter-writers are asking citizens to “dig deep in our pockets” to fund our athletes, calling for more money, as if more $ equals a greater sense of national self-worth. If we taxpayers agree to allow our governments to donate millions of dollars to Olympic athletes, do we benefit when said athletes win medals, financial rewards, and lucrative endorsement deals? Yeah, yeah, I hear you about national pride and national glory brought home with every win. But really, how does the average hard-working Canadian benefit from one of our athletes winning, anyway? Why should an extremely small number of physically-gifted members of our population be awarded financially by us, when we derive no benefit other than a warm-fuzzy feeling? Any sort of victory in any sport (whether in the Olympics, or World Cup Hockey, or minor league baseball) guarantees riches and fame only to the participants.
Every few years, we gripe about how we don’t spend enough on amateur sports funding, and how we pay for it by the lack of medals (see note #4). But there are so many different areas where we could spend tax dollars, that give more than just fleeting moments of national pride. My argument is, whatever amount of money we consider putting into chasing Olympic dreams, we should put that amount instead, or equally, into fighting poverty and homelessness; into funding the arts and humanities; and into building and maintaining shared sporting facilities where we could all have a chance to actively participate, if we so desired. At least that way, we would derive communal, and not individual, satisfaction and benefits.
I didn’t get the full gist of it years earlier when Vancouver won the 2010 Olympics Games, and the protestors came out with their placards. I do now. It would bother me so much if we spent even one-tenth of what China spent this time, on anything Olympics-related.

4) What’s wrong with mediocrity? Seriously, who cares how many medals any nation ends up with, by the end of the competition period? It’s just another bragging tool, like how many warships we have. If we truly cared about the Olympics as an opportunity to forge friendships, or a way to encourage active living through sports, or as a chance to promote sportmanship and good effort, then we should dispense with the medals altogether. Yeah, I know, sounds pretty Pollyanna of me. But sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with mediocrity, as long as there was true joy and effort put in.
If we insist on valuing ourselves through the number of medals that our nation earns, then we might as well say to our kids, “I don’t care how much you love what you’re doing, or how hard you try. Bring home a report card full of As, or bring home a whopping huge salary . . . or I will be severely disappointed in you and won’t love you as much as I could.” We don’t want to give that message, do we? Oh wait, some parents are already doing that now. Those must be the ones angrily hissing about the lack of medals. Remind me which side of the table to stand on, at the next cocktail party.

5) China’s show was perfect. A little too perfect. Just like that manufactured little girl. It gives me such an uneasy feeling to know that millions of people worked so hard to make sure that every blade of grass was perfectly scissor-trimmed, that every street corner was rid of any imperfect human or building, when we all know what truly lies beneath the surface before the Games began, and once they end. On this very topic, the Globe and Mail’s Christie Blatchford wrote a great piece about the uneasiness of being in “the world’s most perfect small bathroom.” So yes, China did put on a fabulous show that the world will never forget. If by fabulous, we mean excessive, over-the-top, over-financed, and even artificial, right down to the computer-animated fireworks and lack of “non-pretty” little girls, then these Beijing Olympics were perfect. These are Olympic ceremonies that won’t be equalled or duplicated. Let’s hope so.

All right, I got it all off my chest. I’m letting it go now. In two years, I’ll probably re-hash most of the same issues again in my head. But hopefully then, I’ll get my sports fix elsewhere, and my personal Olympics boycott will stick.

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