You are not an Olympic athlete (or if you are: Hey! I’m so happy you’re reading this blog! Congratulations on your tremendous achievement! Unless you play ping-pong. Seriously, that’s like playing Olympic flip cup). You are, like me, someone who watched the Olympic opening ceremonies and thought, wow, don’t we look like France? You also thought the entire spectacle was creepy, especially the winged cyclists and the giant You-Know-Who. Maybe you asked yourself, isn’t this supposed to be about sports, not spectacle?
Because that, historically, is what the Olympics are about. They are a celebration of bodies and what they can achieve. Picture the Greeks and their crowns of laurel, all taut muscles and strength, throwing discuses farther that you or I could run without getting short of breath. Our ancient brethren spent hours and hours idealizing the perfect physical form, just like we do. I mean, have you seen the men’s water polo team? Olympic athletes are heroes, are literal Olympians, godlike, surveying us from a height we can never reach.
Well, that’s what we think every four years, anyway. In the interim, we think of professional athletes as:
– morally suspect (even in golf! I’m looking at you, Tiger.)
I know that I’m talking to a particular subset of culture here – I’m writing this entire article based on the premise that you don’t really care about American sports, and may find people who do less worthy of your time. But there’s something mainstream about it too. Our culture likes to see the mighty fall, be they bankers or basketball players. So it’s fun to celebrate the worst about people who get paid millions more than most of us ever will.
But not during the Olympics. Suddenly, these people are brave patriots participating in a valiant struggle. All of them. Even Lebron James, who apparently owns a tee-shirt with his own face on it.
And guess what? I buy into it, one hundred percent. Like John Orozco, a teenager (a teenager!) from the Bronx who has been called the USA gymnastic team’s best hope for gold by all kinds of people in my Google search results. He’s the perfect Olympic success story – he started gymnastics in a program for socioeconomically disadvantaged kids, and now he’s at the Olympics themselves. I really want him to win. I really, really, do, and if he does, I will probably cry like I’m related to him.
I am genuinely sad for Michael Phelps, because I know his window is closing. The guy’s 27 years old, has won seventeen medals, and set thirty nine world records. Sports Illustrated called him “the greatest swimmer in history”. And he’s already losing to Ryan Lochte (when I typed Lochte’s name into my search bar, it suggested “ryan lochte girlfriend 2012, whereas Phelps gets “michael phelps net worth”).
It’s all spectacle, people. These are low stakes competitions that we’ve made insanely important. Because does it really matter who can swim the fastest if you’re not swimming away from a shark? Who cares who can lift the heaviest thing if it’s not a car you’re picking up off of your child? Many of these athletes will go back to lives that are not glamorous at all. On the off years, someone will make a big deal about them smoking a little pot. But I want to believe in a narrative that has heroes. I will ignore their flaws and I will cheer because it doesn’t matter who works at a Home Depot in 2013 or who will cheat on their girlfriend with a gymnast.
I know I am watching people come as close as they ever will to getting everything they want. So I’ll suspend my disbelief and believe that Queen is having a good time, and that Olympic athletes are somehow nobler, grander, better people.
Until one of them gets caught in a closet with David Cameron.