Notes on the Olympics

August 25, 2008 at 2:56 pm (Uncategorized)

If as Clausewitz once wrote, “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” what then would he have made of sports?

Everyone seems to agree the Olympics were a sight to be seen, and they were certainly hard to miss.  I’m not a big fan of sports. I usually watch soccer during the World Cup or tennis during Wimbledon, but I wouldn’t really describe myself as a follower. My general take is to agree with Orwell in his essay on sports

I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.

Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved. it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.

— the Sporting Spirit 1945

That said, whenever I came across the Olympics when flipping channels, I often found myself watching. There’s just something about the competition between perfectly trained human beings in this format which makes it difficult to turn away. My kids, 8 and 4, are both hooked: Both of them chanted “Go Canada Go!” with increasing regularity and volume.

My favourite moments had little to do with sports though…

Cold War Redux

I constantly had to check the date on the calendar during the games. The mainstream media seemed to view this year’s Olympics as a chance to dust off all the Cold War Rhetoric which had lain unused for two decades. On Saturday, the Toronto Globe and Mail headlined “China’s Totalitarian Success.” Granted China maintains an exceedingly short leash of “democratic” freedoms, but totalitarian? A few nights ago I saw former Bob’s Your Uncle and current CBC commentator Suk Yin Lee interviewing Chinese punk bands. The segment even included footage from punk clubs.  Totalitarian seems hardly the word. A lot of the language that used to be addressed at the former Soviet Union is simply re-directed toward China.

Come Back Milli Vanilli All is Forgiven

The decision to substitute a very cute child with unknown singing capabilities (to me anyway), for a cute child with proven singing abilities has provoked somewhat of a tempest in a teapot. Yes, it’s not a very nice thing to do, but it’s the singer who should feel angry. The reaction seems a little overblown.  Looking through my CDs and albums, I own not a small number of “live” records which feature studio enhancements – Phil Ochs’ “In Concert” features several tracks actually recorded in the studio. And I shall not mention the laugh track which accompanies almost every US sit com.

Award for Unconscious Humour

Nicholas Kristoff wrote an extremely funny column in the New York Times last week about applying for a protest permit in Beijing. When he applied he was asked the names of everyone who would be attending the protest. He gave up.  It struck me as hysterical, that in many cases people who took the government at face value and applied for a permit were later arrested. Was it simply entrapment or Hundred Flowers Mark II?

Coverage (part 1)

An article published in the Toronto Globe and Mail last week reported that after the 2000 Sydney Olympics held in September, US broadcasters met with Olympics officials and demanded that the games never be held in September again. The reason? They felt that the lower number of viewers was due to the fact that more people are home in the summer than in September. A September Olympics also clashed with US sporting events: Fewer viewers, less money. Can’t have that. From the coverage I saw, the NBC was a little more gracious when showing other countries competing than in the past, but as Anthony Lane put it in the New Yorker, ” what NBC chooses to broadcast is not the Olympic Games. They offer selected clips of selected American athletes, largely in major sports, sometimes hours after the event, whereas, if the bruised Olympic ideal still means anything, it means loosing yourself, for a couple of weeks, from the bonds of your immediate loyalties and tastes.”

Coverage (part2)

On my Olympic journey, I came across women’s beach volleyball. Now leaving aside my qualms about whetther or not beach vollyball was really an Olympic sport, I couldn’t fail to notice that all the competitors were wearing bikinis. Later, when the men played, surprise surprise they were not wearing speedos, but shirts and the curiously named long board shorts. It couldn’t really be the obvious explanation could it?


I work in a place which has a large number of recent immigrants from China. Everyone was bursting with pride about the Olympics. “Did you see the opening ceremonies?”, “I am so proud.” and so on. It’s always puzzled me. When the Toronto Blue Jays won the misnamed World Series twice in a row in the mid-1990s, no one bought me a beer because I was from Toronto. I didn’t know any of the athletes on the team (few if any were actually from Toronto – not that that would have made any difference), my boss didn’t give me a raise. Yet, as Orwell noted above, for many people it’s a siginifcant source of pride.

However, this pride also has an ugly side. Often love of “your” team becomes hatred of the other team, especially if the player or players “look different” from “us.” (Yes, that’s exactly what I mean).  But it can also be extended to when a player from “our” side doesn’t win. When I was a kid, the joke was always that the Soviet players who failed were sent to the “salt mines.” The case of liu Xiang is a good one. While the government has publically stood behind him, internat boards and newspaper letters columns are filled with insulting and hateful language.

That Sporting Spirit

The prediction was for dozens of people caught doping, but it was only a dozen. I’ve occasionally wondered about a steroid Olympics where all the competitors MUST take drugs: let’s see how fast you can go, how much you can lift, how high you can jump, before you die of cancer, heart attacks or whatever else these drugs will do to you.

But the awards for ironic spirit must go to Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian for rejecting his medal after he felt he had been unfairly judged, and Ángel Valodia Matos Fuentes for kicking a referee in the face. Honourable mention to the Spanish basketball teams.

Conspiracy Theory

Yesterday’s New York Times magazine featured an interview with former Democratic Party presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich. In the piece Kucinich suggests that Georgia’s actions in South Ossetia were a part of the Bush administration’s “War Olympics”,  and that this may be a prelude to a strike against Iran, just in time for November.   

There, and I didn’t even mention Tibet or Darfur.

1 Comment

  1. Olympic Fever « Notes from Underground said,

    […] the last Olympic Games in 2008 I wrote a post of all things Olympic, which I still stand by today. However, during the first week of this year’s games, I was on […]

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