The Olympics are now underway, and that still seems to be a big deal.
Not as big as deal as it was back in the Cold War days, when every competition that pitted the good ol’ USA against the USSR and its various proxies had the feel of single combat for the future of the civilized world. The games were riveting then, with each American victory vindicating the free market system and every commie victory confirming the duplicitous nature of that evil system. Not every Soviet win was tainted, of course, but that basketball final in the ’72 games certainly was, and so were all the medals won by those testosterone-laden women swimmers from East Germany, and countless judges decisions, so there were always enough shenanigans to support a good-guy-versus-bad-guy storyline that makes sports spectating so much more enjoyable.
The demise of the Soviet Union was a boon to humankind, but it did take much of the fun out of the Olympics. When the Russians and their puppets skipped the ’84 games America won so many gold medals that the national anthem became tedious, and all of the subsequent Olympics have lacked a suitable villain. At the Sydney games in ’00 the big competition turned out to be the home court Aussies, and except for Mel Gibson, Yahoo Serious, some crazy gun laws, and an occasional tendency toward self-righteousness there’s really nothing to justify rooting lustily against Australia. China arrived as a major world sports power at the ’08 Olympics in Beijing, and that country has several suitably villainous characteristics, but most of its medals are still being won in sports that Americans don’t bother to watch. The Ummah doesn’t field a team at the Olympics, yet, but even if it did it probably wouldn’t pose much of a threat to America’s standing in the medal count.
The supposed virtues of the “Olympic ideal” are an insufficient substitute for the good-versus-evil narrative. That idealism has been in question at least since 1936, when the games became a propaganda production for the German Nazi party, and every Olympics in our memory has been marked by doping scandals, game-fixing, outrageous political gestures, the worst sort of nationalism, and general poor sportsmanship. The ginned-up controversies over the amateur status of the competitors that were once a fixture of the games has happily disappeared since the Olympics wisely decided to embrace professionalism, but they’ve been replaced by tedious brouhahas over some small point of political correctness. Before the opening a ceremony a Greek athlete has already been expelled for the games over a rather mild joke and some unsavory party affiliations. All the “Olympic ideal” talk has an unsettling hint of one-worldism about it, and the quadrennial controversies always suggest that the one world they have in mind will be a rather stuffy and humorless place.
Still, we’ll be eagerly tuned in to whatever’s still available for free on over-the-air television, and hoping that it is free of tragedy. For all its flaws, the Olympics still bring together the world’s greatest athletes to compete in a variety of venerable sports, and there’s something undeniably compelling about that. The competition invariably provokes the best of humanity, even as it routinely displays the worst, and seeing that extraordinary range play out on a world stage will always have an intrinsic interest.
— Bud Norman