Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In Which Nathan Discovers He Can Change His Mind.

Matt has posted Part XXI of Sophie from Shinola. And it turns out, now Jeri's posted Part 22. And Saqib is done, done and double done...with Part 23. And, Jeez Louise, Michelle's already posted Part 24. The beginning and the explanation of the whole thing can be found here.
Shocking! Just shocking! In reality, as someone who considers himself at least moderately intelligent, I take pride in the fact that I'm capable of reassessing things and changing my mind from time to time. Having said that, it still comes as a shock to me every time it happens. It's usually some variation on the theme of "OMG, I've been wrong about this for as long as I've been thinking about it." So what's my epiphany today? The Olympics.

About a week ago, Scalzice was answering questions from the riff raff and was asked his opinion about boycotting the Olympics "because China is mean to Tibet." My "pull it out of my ass" comment was:

I completely understand the urge to boycott an Olympics, but I’m against it anyway. The original Olympics were meant to be played by people who were actually at war with each other. They were meant as a brief cease-fire aimed at showing how peaceful competition could trump the biggest animosities. The spirit of the Olympics is supposed to be about putting aside differences.

It’s not about saying the differences don’t exist. It’s about saying that for this brief period, we’re going to ignore our differences and remind ourselves that we all have more in common than what separates us.

And, so, in hindsight, I was being a stupid ass. My premise couldn't have been more wrong. Why? Well, first of all, the Ancient Olympics weren't really all they're cracked up to be to begin with. The only people permitted to compete were free men who spoke Greek. It's long been stated that wars between Greek City-states were temporarily halted during the competition, but there's some evidence that the wars went on while certain soldiers were permitted to leave so they could compete in the games. Another sign of how wonderful the original games were, is that in the chariot races, the charioteer was not considered the competitor; the owner of the team and the chariot was. Yeah, this was all about idealizing sport.

What else was wrong with my premise? The modern games may have been resurrected with the idea of living up to the myth, but they haven't lived up to that for a long time now. The games are awarded in a highly suspect manner where the biggest bribes get the games. (Yeah, I know they've supposedly cleaned up the awarding process, but I don't buy it.) For years now, various governments have enlisted athletes into their armies and then made their sole duty to be training in their sport...thus maintaining the fiction of amateur status. Not to be outdone, Americans have dreamed up means of sponsorship that aren't sponsorship. I wouldn't want to be accused of perpetuating a stereotype, but, c'mon, the East German women were all men.

The IOC finally knuckled under and let snowboarding into the Winter Games when they realized that their target audience was more likely to tune in to see somebody getting some wicked air than they were to watch the biathalon. The whole thing is about money and for countries to present some spruced up image of themselves to the rest of the world. Oh, and there's ticket sales for the events and a week's worth of having tourism go through the roof and (for the intelligent countries), a bunch of infrastructure you can put to other uses when the games are over.

The bad behavior we're seeing from people as the torch is run through various cities around the world is regrettable but understandable. I say forget about boycotting the games. Just stop having them. I'm sure there are plenty of athletes who really are amateurs and really are living up to the "ideals of the competition", but they're just being used by the IOC as product.

The games are a sham. If they provide an excuse to scream about China's mistreatment of Tibet, so be it. I can live with that.

P.S. I'm not one of those bloggers who are going to present exhaustive footnotes to back up every single statement I made. This is my opinion. Feel free to argue with me, but don't expect me to spend a whole lot of time finding sources to refute you. I don't care that much. Besides, as soon as I hit "Publish Post", this will be on the internet. Therefore, it will be true. Hah! Argue with that logic.


Janiece said...

I won't argue with your logic, but I do have to think about what you said. You make some good points, and they deserve some thought.

Anonymous said...

Interesting food for thought. I've always had the possibly naive perception that you started out with - that the Olympics are time to declare a truce and compete in the spirit of sportsmanship.

The amateur/pro distinction is a completely different issue than the China issue - I don't know that I would muddle the two together in my brain.

I do think that I would not feel altogether safe entering China as an outspoken citizen of a democratic country.

Nathan said...


I don't really think the amateur/pro thing is a muddying of the waters. I think it's part and parcel of all that is bullshit about the games to begin with. The USSR had a tradition of fielding soldier/athletes before the U.S. figured out how to let our athletes get a career that paid them to train. I believe (tho I could be wrong) that China continues the tradition. It's just one more example of the bullshit that doesn't live up to a myth that never really existed in the first place.

I'm in a fairly cynical mood today.

Anonymous said...

I'm rather apathetic on the subject; protest, don't protest, cancel, don't cancel, I really don't care, because I'm not going to pay any attention no matter what they do or don't do.

I've always been of the opinion that high-level sports -- meaning professional sports, Olympic sports, probably even college sports, but not things that actually help kids, like Little League and high school sports -- should be done away with (perhaps because I'm not a fan of any). The billions and possibly trillions of dollars spent a year paying for players, arenas, support staff, television setup, etc. should be put to something more important than knocking a ball around a field -- you know, something like curing cancer or ending world hunger.

But, of course, what good is being cured of cancer or having food to eat if there is no Monday Night Football to watch.

Eric said...

And the political side of the modern Olympics has long been a part of the baggage. The Germans did everything they could to make the 1936 Berlin Olympics a Nazi propaganda event (and, Jesse Owens notwithstanding, they largely succeeded--Triumph Of The Will is the definitive documentation of the event). The 1980 Olympics were boycotted by the U.S. over Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, which was followed by the 1984 Soviet boycott of LA.

Indeed, Anne Applebaum's recent piece in Slate is instructive:

"There were black power demonstrations at the 1968 Mexico City Games. A Palestinian group attacked and killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games. Australian aborigines protested at the 2000 Sydney Games. And everything associated with the 2008 Olympics... is blatantly designed to promote the domestic and international image of the Chinese state."

Somewhat contrary to the "peaceful competition" mythology of the Olympics, the bitter truth is that the pre-WWII Olympics were all about demonstrating nationalist superiority amongst the European states and the post-WWII resumed the tradition, being largely about ideological superiority between the capitalist Atlantic states and the communist Soviet Bloc and China.

The "this is not the time for protest, group hugs" mentality isn't about the hugs. It's about the embarrassment resulting from the fact that the Olympic committee's decision to give the 2008 Summer Olympics to China (presumably done with the intent to "engage" China and pull China towards liberalism) has badly backfired (as anyone with a knowledge of Chinese history might have foreseen), and is being used by the Chinese Communist Party as a massive whitewash campaign. In short, the "now is not the time and place" camp is about quieting dissent and sweeping embarrassment under the rug. Should China, the Olympic committee, and everyone else who's playing along be called on it?

Hell yeah.

Nathan said...


I have no problem with pro sports; they're pretty much what they claim to be..entertainment. With the exception of some stadia, it's a private enterprise which charges what the market will bear and pays its performers. I've got no problem with that and it's not like the money would be going to cure cancer if it weren't going to some star.

Ditto with College Athletics. The big ticket sports rake in money which pays for the sports that don't make any money and, I presume, enriches endowments and the like. But once again, it doesn't make any claims to be what it isn't. And once again, this money wouldn't be out feeding starving children otherwise.

Eric, What got me re-thinking the whole thing has been the protests at the torch runs. My first reaction was to think it unseemly and mis-placed. Then I started thinking "what's wrong with using a high-profile situation to protest something China would clearly prefer to keep quiet?" Like I said, I'm feeling mighty cynical today, so I'm not going to give the IOC the benefit of a doubt that they awarded China the games out of hope of "engaging" China. If China

Anonymous said...

I don't deny for a moment that ending paid sports wouldn't mean any more money for issues that actually matter. It's not as though people would suddenly wake up and think "Holy Humanitarian Aid, Batman, without the hypnotizing effect of Major League Baseball, I suddenly realize that I should help the less fortunate!" Of course the money wouldn't go to worthy causes; it would go to some other silly entertainment, because things like curing cancer and feeding the hungry just don't provide the same thrill as good slam dunk.

With that said, the fact that it could never happen is not a good enough reason for me to stop thinking it should happen; there's a word for believing in and seeking the impossible: innovation.

Nathan said...

"Holy Humanitarian Aid, Batman,"

Love. It.

I guess I can't get too worked up about people disposing of their income on entertainment when that's what provides my living. :D

kimby said...

My 87 year old Father in law and I were discussing this topic this morning...While both of us, as history freaks are aware of the savagery that was the original Olympics, the thought that an event that COULD/WOULD/HAS brought countries together that would otherwise be as far apart as one could get has always been a draw for me. Having had one of my closest friends compete in the Calgary Olympics, I know the hard work and determination that it took to get there. (or at least i watched as he did all the hard work, i just cheered).
I still cannot comprehend what the IOC was thinking when it awarded China the Olympics. Did they think that it would be a catalyst for something greater? Did they even consider what meyham their choice would bring?
For my FIL, it is confusing to him. (in his defense, his Alzheimers make a lot of things confusing)
He is of the mind that countries should put aside their differences and come together for the love of the game. And honestly, I tend to agree.

Anonymous said...


Y'all know I have neocon fundamentalist inlaws. This last Christmas we did a charity donation in lieu of gift exchange. Most of us tagged charities like food bank, habitat for humanity, etc for donations to go to.

The in-laws, however don't really hold with all that social welfare support stuff and don't donate to charity. Instead, they had us donate to their fundamentalist church. The freaking *decorating fund*.

So no, folks don't always wake up realize they need to help the less fortunate... even when you'd think it would make sense! We won't be doing the charity exchange thing again.

I have no problem with pro sports, although I think they're grossly overpaid far out of proportion to their actual value to society. I just think the Olympics should get over its no-longer-relevant distinction of amateur vs. pro and let the best athletes compete.

Random Michelle K said...

The big ticket sports rake in money which pays for the sports that don't make any money and, I presume, enriches endowments and the like. But once again, it doesn't make any claims to be what it isn't. And once again, this money wouldn't be out feeding starving children otherwise.

For what it's worth, at WVU athletes are strongly recommend (or possibly required) to have community service hours. So not only does football pay for many other sports at WVU, it also tries to involve the players in the community, especially working with or supporting younger children. And I think the other sports encourage/require this as well.

Is this common at other schools? I don't know. But it should be.

The point is that communities do--at least in some cases--get something back from the teams they support, and not just in tax revenue from t-shirts and beer.

This is of course tangential to the Olympics. I think that the selection of Bejing was a poor choice for the Olympics just from the air quality and the number of people who have been displaced from their homes to build the Olympic buildings. It seems to me that it would make more sense to use facilities that already exist than to spend billions on new facilities.

But that too does not address Nathan's point.

I think that in recent years the Olympics have become much more of a money making venture than an event of good will towards all humanity. Why else would they have changed the way the Olympics were staggered?

Why else would we allows professional players, and sports that cater the affluent.

On the other hand, it *is* a good thing when people of many different nations get together.

Anonymous said...

So not only does football pay for many other sports at WVU, it also tries to involve the players in the community, especially working with or supporting younger children. And I think the other sports encourage/require this as well.

Is this common at other schools? I don't know. But it should be.

In my book, any sports that help kids learn to respect one another and to live healthy lives are worth every cent paid for them. Consider my earlier statement rejigged to reflect that.

Anonymous said...

Our paper ran an interesting story today on the origin of the much-protested torch relay. It's definitely eye opening to realize it's a recent custom originating in Nazi Germany.

Nathan said...

Thanks Jeri, I didn't know that.