For a while there, I was worried. The 2002 Winter Games had begun in Salt Lake City, the opening ceremony was under way. I sat glued to my television in the middle of the night.
The flag that had flown atop the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 had been carried into the stadium by NYPD and FDNY heroes. President Bush stood rigidly, silently, with an iron gaze broadcast around the world. And just like that, he turned and left. The stadium was empty, except for the thousands and thousands of audience members.
That was when the flood began. In case you haven’t heard, the theme of this year’s Olympics is “The Fire Within,” and the moment Bush left the stadium, it was flooded with ice-skaters. Hundreds of them. Little children holding faux gas lanterns represented “the children of light,” one of whom, the HEAD “child of light” (he’d apparently beaten the crap out of all the other children of light to get this job) was on an ice-skating journey to find and harness “the fire within.”
The fire within, as it turned out, was a former Eastern European Olympic athlete in a red wig and orange body suit. He looked like David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, except even more androgynous. This man was the emblem of the Olympics, the symbol of progress, the beacon of human redemption. Plus, he could do a triple salchow like your fat aunt.
I sat up. It was Ancient Rome. We had combined our war and our spectacle. We had confused our entertainment with our violence. We had mixed business and pleasure.
It was a sight to see and as soon as I saw it, I realized that the Olympics had lost all meaning. Then again, when did the Olympics ever HAVE meaning? The word “Olympics” conjures up all these sacred images of wreaths and gold, of marathon runners and kings. Yeah. That WAS the Olympics, in the Ancient Greek sense of the term. But the “World Games” is, and has been since its inception in 1896, a completely different animal.
“The Olympics” as we know it, as we see it today, fulfills the same role it has for the past hundred years: it’s a tool of the ruling nation of the world, to keep that nation in power. Simple as that. The Olympics is a big metaphor that we created 100 years ago to be a big metaphor — a big microcosm of the world, in which one nation will SYMBOLICALLY come out on top. Big microcosm. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
The Olympics is, and always has been a war of symbols. Forget all that “sportsmanship and brotherhood” bull. Never was, never will be. Look at the news coverage we see of “The Olympics” right now. It’s all about what the United States has done, who the United States has beaten mercilessly. And when we guide our tattered flag out into the arena and show it off, our victory becomes all the more poignant. We’re all the more deserving of our monopoly money.
Hell, we have NO shame when it comes to making sure the United States stays on top symbolically. The United States this year has gone so far as to invent a sport that only we can do REALLY well, and make sure that it’s an Olympic game. Snowboarding. Oh my god.
“Are you f***ing kidding?,” asks the Prime Minister of Burundi.
“We don’t even have f***ing SNOW here. How are we supposed to place in the snowboarding competition?”
You’re not, Mister Prime Minister. That’s the whole point. Hot countries, you have no place even TRYING to beat the United States. Despite what John Candy may have told you in “Cool Runnings,” your role is to give up before you start and make way for the big guns. Smile, be happy you were invited, support the McDonalds in the Olympic Village, enjoy the anesthetic sounds of the free Barenaked Ladies concerts, and get home.
No WONDER people in the Middle East hate us! We stack the deck! Symbolically!
Have you seen these guys who took the gold in snowboarding?
They’re a bunch of teenage American kids who, rather than spend their young lives enriching themselves with knowledge and experience, have thrown it away, wasting their time SNOWBOARDING. They’re the kids you knew in high school and dismissed because they were snowboarders. These are the symbols of our country “the children of light” and they can’t put a sentence together. What does that say about our country?
To begin with, it says nothing we didn’t know already. After all, our president’s no better. Rather than say something meaningful, important, or inspiring (in his State of the Union speech or at these Winter Games) he chose to play the Clint Eastwood part yet again, replacing real, intelligent leadership with a glare — a glare that, at any moment, makes the President look like Donny Rumsfeld has just turned to him and told him that old joke about Helen Keller. He can barely hold back laughter.
Bush is just like the Olympics. He’s a symbol. He’s a symbol of a president, a surrogate, an actor, but he himself is meaningless. He’s an empty suit.
The Olympics are meant to keep the United States on top, just as they have been since Jesse Owens took the gold in 1939, upsetting the German Olympic team that then-Chancellor Adolf Hitler hoped would symbolize the greatness of the Aryan race, and his growing Third Reich. A symbol for all the world to see and fear — a symbol behind which lingered something vile and deceiving.
The United States is not the Third Reich. George W. Bush is not by any stretch of the national imagination similar to Adolf Hitler. But the way in which the United States uses the Olympics to rule the world is in no way different from the way in which other hegemonic nations have exercised their power. The players have shifted, the games remain the same. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that history doesn’t repeat itself. Because we’re back in Rome.
Do not trust symbols. Those stoned out snowboarders certainly don’t represent me, except maybe for the “stoned out” part. They don’t represent The United States, no matter how many medals they rack up, no matter how many Brazilian challengers they ruin in righteous victory. They’re about as symbolic of our land and its original ideals as Ziggy Stardust was of that “fire within,” whatever the hell that was.
The Olympics are meaningless. They are the greatest slap in the face yet to a nation that needs to throw AWAY jingoism, trash its symbols, rather than embrace them. They are simply the most ridiculous appurtenance this world could have at this volatile, frightening, complicated moment in history.ÊÊ
Greg Yolen is a sophomore in Pierson College and isn’t usually this mean.