I remember being glued to the Olympics when I was home one winter with pneumonia or flu (probably in 1976), with my cat and the television my main companions. I enjoyed the figure skating, with its costumes, elegant skaters and music, but couldn’t connect to the other sports. As a highly sensitive person, I hated seeing the skiers or lugers crash and the gut-wrenching tears of the disappointed filmed at close range. Why couldn’t the cameramen give the athletes some privacy? And as a girl of few words, I disliked the drama-fomenting yakkety-yak of the sportscasters. Couldn’t they just show us the event and shut up already?!
As I got older and became aware of the Cold War, it seemed as if the not-so-subtle subtext of the games was which political system would generate the higher medal count. It was impossible to watch Americans compete against Soviets (or West Germans vs. East Germans) without framing it as an ideological contest. It was a different kind of arms race in which the athletes were proxies, some not necessarily willing. Since it was hard to discern what was going on behind the Iron Curtain (were the East German swimmers pumped on steroids, or were they indeed a special breed that grew grapefruits in their biceps?), who could be sure that the competition was legitimate. At times, the Olympics seemed more spectacle and farce than fair play.
To be even handed, some of the athletes’ stories are inspiring. As a friend movingly writes, the competitors model perseverance and the pursuit of excellence to people who strive toward goals, out of the limelight, that can’t be measured in meters and milliseconds. We all need heroes, and some of the Olympians demonstrate grace under pressure. And the Olympics are also a chance for smaller countries to assert their presence, even if briefly, on the global stage. But, as someone who was more of a mathlete than athlete, I can’t help but wonder if our country is best served by the glorification of sports and Olympic medalists during their reign.
With the Cold War long over, can the country really claim victory if it beats China in the overall medal count? (as of this writing, China is ahead). What does it mean for Americans to bring home all that gold, silver and bronze when gym classes are being cut despite an obesity epidemic? Is our country a “winner” if we can’t (or won’t) educate every child about fitness and health, introduce them to different activities and help them develop a lifelong exercise habit? Is our culture a “winner” if, while broadcasting its message to reach for the stars and go for the gold, it pulls gymnastics mats out from under children’s feet?
Already, there are estimates of how much history-making Gabrielle Douglas will likely cash in. While I don’t begrudge her and others their achievements, I hope that they’ll consider using part of their earnings to pay it forward. And I can’t help but wonder what might be possible if, once the games are over, the media shifted its spotlight and zeroed in, with equal intensity, curiosity and duration, on the condition of parks and recreation facilities. What if it pressed for change, to narrow the gap between Olympic rhetoric and reality? Or what if it highlighted communities or schools who, despite financial pressures, have devised innovative ways to keep students and adults active. Perhaps those efforts are just as deserving of our attention and a medal.