The Olympics: Looking Beyond the Finish Line

Someone asked me at a party last weekend what was so great about the Olympics. The Olympo-sceptic pointed out that the Olympics is primarily composed of sports that no one watches otherwise – weird, boring events like canoeing and synchronized diving that get a fleeting glimmer of attention once every four years and then slip back into murky obscurity like an alligator sliding into a swamp. The Olympo-sceptic was right, but he was also wrong.

The Olympics are awesome. Here’s why.

Boring sports are actually awesome, in their own way. Not every event has to be an intense 100 meter dash or a riveting world record attempt. Sometimes I want to chill out on my couch and mess around on twitter while other people are being productive in the background (on my TV screen). Boring sports give you a guilt-free opportunity to vegetate and let the stresses of the work week melt away, while still feeling like you are kind of doing something. And when someone asks you what you did this afternoon, you can say you were watching the Olympics. Sounds respectable. You don’t have to clarify that you were watching bicycling, air pistol, and women’s 53kg snatch. That can be your little secret.

Every four years, the Olympics give people a chance to take vengeance on countries they don’t like via passive-aggressive proxy wars. Let’s say you are a Jamaican who is still bitter over the Monroe Doctrine. Jamaican GIs are not going to be unleashing Rastafarian rage in Florida anytime soon, but you can still watch Usain Bolt kick America’s ass on the track. You don’t have to be familiar with the athletes or even the events to be emotionally invested in the outcome. To be honest, I didn’t even know doubles badminton was an Olympic event until yesterday, but I knew I wanted Kazakhstan to win because I thought Borat was hilarious.

The Olympics serve as the world’s stage for culture wars, civil rights, and international intrigue. Saudi Arabia demanded their first-ever female Olympians wear burkas in this year’s games. Tommie Smith gave it up for Black Power on the medal podium in ’68. Beijing used the opening ceremony to make a political statement in 2008. All of those drummers moving in perfect unison told the western world, “we are organized, we are modernized, and we are a world power”. In 2012, the message of London’s opening ceremony was clear: “we started the industrial revolution, we invented the internet, and we wrote the Harry Potter series”. Of course, this wasn’t the first time that the Olympics have been used to make a political statement. The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were a showdown between the democracies and Hitler’s master race. Terrorists used the 1972 games in Munich to take hostages, and the United States and the U.S.S.R vented Cold War animosities by boycotting each others’ Olympics in ’80 and ’84.

Aside from international politics, the Olympics are also a great place for fashion cues. I knew big clunky headphones like Beats by Dr. Dre were in, but I didn’t know how in they were until I saw every swimmer from every country in the world wearing them. Kinesio tape is the must-have athletic fashion accessory of the year. I had an inkling when I saw Mario Balotelli sporting the blue tape on his back during this year’s European Soccer Championships, but the Summer Games confirmed it. And the tape rage traces its beginnings to the 2008 Olympics, when Kinesio USA donated 50,000 roles to the athletes.

Whether you are into sports, international affairs, or fashion, the Olympics offer something for everyone. In our splintered, 250-channel, à la carte society, widely-shared cultural experiences rare, and the Olympics are one of the few events that everyone in the world sits down and watches together.

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