A Glimmer of Humanity in the Olympic Machine

My first memory of the Olympic Games is of the medal podium I built during the Seoul Olympics on the floor of our kitchen.  The gold medal platform was my parents’ largest pot, turned upside down, with a couple saucepans on either side for silver and bronze.

We have always watched the Olympics in my family.  Even though we didn’t care about most other sports, the Olympics felt different.  They were only superficially about sport; what they were really about was a world coming together and setting aside differences–a vision that was surely easier for me to maintain because I was too young to remember the Los Angeles games, boycotted by the USSR in response to our earlier boycott of the Moscow Games.

All of that remains in my mind, as do the many other controversies that mar the Games today, the most egregious being the stories I have heard of neighborhoods belonging to the least powerful Cariocas being bulldozed to put in venues to impress foreign elites.  It has dampened my enthusiasm for the Games considerably and is one of those concrete ways that recognizing how awful the world is is part of being an adult, at least for those of us who had childhoods sheltered from all that.

And yet–I cling to some hope.  Seeing the Greek, Brazilian, and Japanese flags lined up next to each other.  Hearing the Kenyan national anthem played for the men’s marathon winner earlier in the Closing Ceremony. (For those of us who are citizens of a hegemonic world power that routinely clobbers in the medal count, I think it must be hard to imagine the what it would mean to hear your nation’s anthem played on the world stage like that.) These are the things that I see and think that my six-year-old self recognized something of value.

Rio Olympics Closing CeremonyMax was just rolling his eyes at me because I was reciting, impromptu and along with the IOC president, the traditional speech to close the games — I call upon the youth of the world to gather four years from now in Tokyo, Japan, for the Games of the Thirty Second Olympiad.  See, that still always gets me choked up, no matter how commercialized the Games get or how revolting corrupt IOC members get.  And the emotion is in part bitterness at the real harms already committed in the name of the Olympics.  But maybe that’s what it is to be human.  And the hopeful aspect points many of us toward what we want to see in the future.

The powers behind the Olympics show us what is to be overcome, while the athletes show us what we can aspire to.  I guess that’s symbolic of so much of human existence, and that’s how I’ve come to appreciate the Olympic Games as an adult.

And it still gets me choked up.

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