Of course, there’s a part of all of us that loves a winner. There’s a reason why so many people wear the jerseys of their favorite teams or players (way more when that person or team is on top than not, by the way), why we revert to a sort of tribal level of passion — painting our faces, screaming rabidly — and why we practically make a religion out of our sports. At one level, it’s inspiring to see someone achieve what appears to be unattainable. The idea of doing what most Olympians do — or all professional athletes, for that matter — is hard to comprehend. But when we get to witness it, it serves to embolden our faith in humanity a little bit.
Yes, we screw up a lot, we fight each other, and we’re warming up the planet at an alarming rate. But once in a while, it’s transcendent to watch someone do something amazing, beautiful, a little bit closer to perfect.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Olympics. I love the pageantry and global drama of it all. And even as one who hardly ever watches sports (I make exceptions for Roller Derby and Quidditch), I nevertheless find myself glued to the screen whenever the Olympics roll around. At the same time I am uneasy with the neo-colonial aspects of the Games and the fact that one’s ability to win a medal increasingly depends upon how much money one’s country has (making the Games a vivid illustration of global economic injustice). Yet even as I have watched (and enjoyed) the London Games with conflicted emotions, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with the ways the presentation of the Olympics serves to reinforce harmful assumptions about women in our culture.
It started before the Games. As the world geared up for the Olympics, it was hard to avoid hearing some guy or another (from TV hosts to bloggers) saying that what they were most looking forward to watching was women’s beach volleyball. It was this strange inside joke insinuating that the real purpose of the Games was to give them an opportunity to see women diving around in bikinis. I even heard complaints about the new Olympic rule allowing women to compete fully covered (a concession offered to allow Muslim women to compete in the Games). It was uncomfortable to hear how nonchalantly women continue to be reduced to mere sexual objects, but I brushed it aside as typical of our culture.
With the Olympics just a few weeks away, Time reports on the fight that has broken out over security for the Games:
"Policing the world’s biggest peacetime logistics operation is a herculean task, and Britain’s intelligence and military officials are preparing for every eventuality — even if it means festooning a few apartment buildings with Rapier missiles.
Back in May, after residents learned about the plans through leaflets from the MoD, they launched the Stop the Olympic Missiles campaign. Residents staged a protest march on June 30 against government plans, which were approved by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Defence Secretary. In one of the most reproduced images of the protest, an elderly woman holds a sign that says “No missiles on homes! No snipers on schools! No guns on streets!” Other signs simply read, “No missiles in our community” and “This is not a war zone.”
But on July 10 a high-court judge rejected those claims, giving the government the all-clear to proceed. While delivering his verdict, Justice Charles Haddon-Cave suggested that the residents were not at risk and instead were “under something of a misapprehension” about the equipment. He also said the government was acting within the law. A day later lawyers representing the residents said they have decided to drop their case: the tenants simply cannot afford to appeal the court’s decision."
The Olympics is the greatest representation of national athletic pride. Somehow every couple of years, patriotism is met with a degree of innocence and acceptance that is too often forgotten in conflict and negotiation.
Five years ago, Afghanistan re-entered international basketball when the county's Olympic committee decided to draft a team for the 2006 Asian Games. A year later, the committee hired Mamo Rafiq, who was the first Afghan immigrant to play in the NCAA first for Idaho State and then UC Davis.
This time of year I find myself humming the Olympic anthem throughout the day. The Vancouver games run Feb. 12-28; it is time to start dreaming of mogul runs and bobsled victories. For some reason I hum the familiar tune associated with the games on my way to and from errands. As if hauling my three children around were an Olympic event in and of itself.
During the 1960s, sports sociologist Harry Edwards helped found the Olympic Project for Human Rights which called for, among other things, a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to protest racism in sports and society. The boycott was called off, but athletes were still encouraged to protest. During their time on the medal stand, African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their arms in a black-power salute. Edwards, author of Revolt of the Black Athlete and Sociology of Sport, talked with Dave Zirin (www.edgeofsports.com) about the impact of that action, as well as what sports tells us about U.S. society.
Dave Zirin: I was surprised at the level of fanfare last year about the anniversary of the human rights protests at the 1968 Olympics. Why do you think it resonates so many decades later?
Harry Edwards: One, you had a group of young men—I was 24, I think John Carlos was 23, Tommie Smith was 24, Lee Evans was 21—and we determined that we could impact the course of events through American society, maybe throughout the world, through athletics, something that many people considered the toy department of human affairs, especially with the burgeoning civil rights movement going on, the anti-war movement, the student movement, and so forth.
The second part was that the impact of the movement culminating in a demonstration in Mexico City was part of a more general effort during that period that involved everybody from Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Curt Flood, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—you had a whole generation of people involved in what came to be known as the revolt of the black athlete. So it was an iconic, emblematic commemoration of an era, and I think Carlos and Smith epitomized the basic questions we raised at that time.
Are there takeaway lessons for activists and athletes today?
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I've been following the news story of New Zealand Olympic hopeful Logan Campbell. If you haven't heard, he's the taekwondo athlete who said he was forced to open a brothel to cover his training expenses for the 2012 London Olympics.