One can’t be blamed for having forgotten that the Olympics start this Friday. News coverage has been non-existent. Perhaps we in Canada are spoiled, just two years removed from hosting the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where you couldn’t turn around in a store without bumping into some Olympic memorabilia. But the lack of attention being paid, or, more to the point, the sheer indifference to the two weeks of athletic festivities about to get underway is remarkable. Granted it’s been a rough month of news for anyone to get excited about – the shootings in the Eaton Centre and Scarborough and the Aurora theater massacre have not only shot a jolt of fear and sadness through our collective consciousness but revealed the ugliest face of the public debate as gun haters and lovers square off in anonymous Internet forums, each side so implacable that the tragedy of the lives lost – and the heroism of those who died protecting their loved ones from a hail of bullets – is abandoned in the quest to score political points. The U.S. is rending itself apart in election year theatrics as the partisan equivalent of the Montagues and Capulets hurl mud at each other and a wash of unfathomable money blankets the country in negative advertising. Relentless sun scorches the continent in an unprecedented heat wave and drought, the bankers who caused the 2008 financial crisis walk free and Occupy protesters are ignored or called nuisances by the media. Governments obsessed with austerity disregard the plight of people in need and focus like soulless accountants on the bottom line. In short: people are hot, tired, scared, pissed off and broke. How unsurprising, then, that the thought of coming together to cheer on the representatives of our countries in athletic competition is about as appealing as having one’s fingernails extracted with rusty pliers.
I loved watching the Olympics when I was young. I remember leaping out of bed in the summer of 1984 and flipping on the TV to catch up on whatever event was happening in Los Angeles, even if it was nothing but reruns of rowing heats. I tallied medal counts obsessively and updated my father when he strolled in from work at the end of the day on who won what. That was the last time there had been a significant boycott by any of the major competitive countries – the Soviets in retaliation for the U.S. refusal to take part in Moscow in 1980 – and the Americans were wiping the floor with the world. But despite the inevitability of the results in most of the competitions, it was still riveting to watch. The Olympics have always provided more than their share of human drama, even in my lifetime. Carl Lewis scoring four golds in track. Zola Budd knocking over Mary Decker-Slaney. The Battle of the Brians. Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards and the Jamaican bobsled team. Greg Louganis smashing his head on the diving board. Ben Johnson losing his gold after testing positive for steroids. South Africa’s return in 1992, and Elana Meyer and Derartu Tulu’s victory lap. Derek Redmond’s father helping him finish the 400 m. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. The Atlanta Olympic bombing. Two years ago, Canada’s Own the Podium gold medal triumph in Vancouver, and the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. The Olympics, in both their grandest and lowest moments, have been something of a microcosm of the human experience – as ABC’s famous intro used to put it, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” the duality of what it means to be human. What has been the most moving and hopeful aspect of the Olympics for me is watching countries that otherwise despise each other and do their utmost to humiliate and ruin each other politically and economically put all the nonsense aside and compete in amity and peace, and hug each other after the buzzer sounds. It’s somewhat of a cliche, and perhaps not entirely appropriate to call Olympic athletes heroes – perhaps they are not exemplars of what we normally think of as heroism, but they do summon to mind thoughts of how human beings can celebrate their differences rather than using them to belittle and destroy one another.
The Olympics have been criticized, frequently in recent years, for commercialism, jingoism and outright questionable taste. It’s true that watching American coverage of the Games can be a bit cringe-inducing – thank goodness for the CBC and Canada’s “Brrrrrian” Williams – and the use of the word “medal” as a verb continues to give the linguistic purist in me the shakes, but we shouldn’t forget the essence of what they are about: amateur athletes, regular folks like you and me, only much more fit and skilled, given the chance to carve their names into history in a manner that doesn’t involve killing anyone or embarrassing themselves on YouTube. These young people are deserving of a scant two weeks of our attention, before we go back to griping about politics and money and the state of the world and whatever our neighbor did with his lawn that is driving us insane that day. We all seem to hate each other so much lately that it’s a downright miracle that every two years we can set that aside and take the time to appreciate the incredible feats a fully trained human body can accomplish – the pinnacle of the possibilities of physical achievement. We need to latch onto these sorts of things and cling to them for dear life, because every minute shred of hope – every lingering thread slipping away in the winds of history – is worth saving and celebrating. It may truly be all we have left.
Let the Games begin.