CITIUS-ALTIUS-FORTIUS: Musing on why the Olympics Matter

The world needs a moment. After a turbulent year of crises and tragedies and an expletivey summer of political carping, we’re all exhausted. We need some kittens and Corgies and rainbows and plenty of stories of humans helping each other, overcoming odds in order to triumph and – lookee here – we have some of that coming right up. Sixteen days of glory should be just what we need.

Citius…Altius…Fortius – Faster. Higher. Stronger.
–The Olympic motto

The Olympics were created by the Greeks @776 BC to honor their gods and celebrate the human spirit of striving and achievement. They took their Muses seriously and incorporated inspiration into their everyday actions. When the Games took place, a truce was called while athletes from throughout the known world came to compete. Gee, that sounds like a good idea! Over time, the religious purity of the events tarnished somewhat and after several hundred years, the corruption and professionalization of athletes overshadowed the games, and suppression of the old religions by new Christian monarchs ended the games in 394 AD. But a thousand year ride ain’t bad.

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In the modern world, a rich old white Frenchman – Baron Pierre de Coubertin – championed the idea of reinstating the games in the late 1890s. Because he had the resources and education to think happy thoughts, he conceived of rekindling the Games as a way to promote the spirit of cooperation and peace; he was able to stamp his vision of international harmony across the structure and format. The Games he championed were intended to promote friendship across nation and individual, displaying the best of the human spirit of endeavor through sport.

Right from the beginning there were critics, proving that the spirit of bitching within and across nations is also timeless. The clash between the grand vision of harmony and the ruthless pursuit of winning brought out poor sportsmanship and national arguing. Witness a lovely passage from a John Roberts Tunis article in Harper’s, August 1928 (reprinted July 2016):

That the Olympics are a great international gathering of the best athletic stars of the entire world no one can deny; that they are productive of keen competition, new records, immense crowds, profitable weeks for the hotel-keepers and shop-owners of the city in which they are held, no one will for a moment question. But that they have succeeded in becoming a beneficial force in the spreading of peace and good will throughout the world, or that they bring together the various competitors in friendly social intercourse, is not so certain. For, as Mr. George Trevor of the New York Sun said recently, in what close observers will agree to be a conservative statement: “The history of the Olympic Games since their arrival in 1896 has been marked by sporadic dissension, bickering, heartburning, and one or two old-fashioned rows.”

And that was in 1928.

Now this being the Debbie Downer culture we have right now, where haters themselves are also faster, higher and stronger than they have ever been, the Olympic stories have been awash with the negative. Article after article has declared the Rio Olympics will be bad, a disaster. If you google “worst thing about the Olympics” you’ll see a dozen stories; if you google “best thing about the Olympics” and all you see are a handful of “fun facts.” But since there have always been problems with the games, let’s put these concerns in context.

The one serious very valid concern is the polluted water for the outdoor venues, especially for rowing, sailing, and triathletes. The Brazilians have tried hard to improve what was a known problem since they received the bid, but their improvements have fallen short, and are a serious health risk to the athletes and visitors. Doctors are advising athletes to avoid putting their head under water. I won’t sugarcoat that issue. Many athletes are taking precautions, but it’s worth noting that at least some of the triathletes – who swim in open water – have said that many swimming venues they use worldwide are not much different. (What does that tell you about the world?) This one’s just getting a lot more attention.

The Zika virus has also been deemed a health risk, but recent information suggests it may be a bigger problem in Florida than in Rio. Frankly, if I were pregnant or had young children, I would be more worried about being around unvaccinated people which is a serious issue in Northern California. Other complaints seem like same old same old. Some of the living quarters are unfinished, especially for the press who are vocal with their complaints. The Olympic selection process was corrupt, so now it can join the NFL and FIFA World Soocer. The Russians were doping at an extensive, government sanction level – I’m Shocked! Shocked! Instability with the Brazilian central government. Crime and poverty in a city of 6 million people. I’m waiting for gripes about bad weather, traffic, and too many tourists.

One of the biggest repeated complaints is about NBCs “bloated” TV coverage. Talk about a First World Problem!  If you don’t want to watch, then watch reality TV on the other 240 channels or Netflix or for god sakes read a book. Here’s a good one:  David Wallechinsky’s The Complete Book of the Olympics.

If you’ve followed any of the stories from the World Cup Champion US women’s soccer team, you know the athletes often play in substandard facilities. If you saw the movie or read the book Foxcatcher, you know that even gold medal-winning wrestlers practice and train in miserable conditions. That was the men – one can only wonder if the women wrestlers even have training facilities. And these are stories from the US – what must normal conditions be for athletes in Chechnya, Kenya, Paraguay, or Haiti?

The world may know some of the basketball players and tennis stars as celebrities, but the vast majority of Olympic athletes wait four years for an opportunity to compete in sports that are barely known, training without spotlight, without sponsors, in poor conditions. We know about a handful of sports or winners, the ones that American television has put on the pedestal, but many gold medal winners don’t even make it to the Wheaties box. They compete anyway. Athletes from many countries don’t have the resources – poor as they may be – that we have in America. They compete anyway. As de Coubertin described it:

The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

This is why the Olympics are enfolded in such ritual, far beyond the actual competitions themselves. The games are bigger than an athlete, a score, or a winner. There is an Olympic flag, a torch, a hymn, a parade of nations, and medals. Over time, the trappings have extended – now to include a torch relay, awards ceremonies, honorary flag bearers, mascots, fireworks, national pageants full of children and volunteers from the host country, cauldron lighting, and anthems.  Read through the fascinating 110 page Olympic charter and tell me this doesn’t remind you of a catechism.

When I was a kid, I thought all of that was stupefyingly boring. But having watched twenty Olympics over the years, I know that these ceremonies, symbols and rituals are what raise these above a mere contest. You can decide that you’d rather not see every single nation walk by the cameras – and the NBC commentators often do cut away – but those athletes from Uzbekistan and Grenada probably faced unimaginable difficulties in scraping together the place to practice, qualify and compete. Make a drinking game of it if you like, taking a swig if the country has fewer than five athletes or finish the cup if there’s only one.

If you want to experience the Olympics as envisioned, understanding the spirit of harmony, then I challenge you to pick a sport you’ve never watched and dig in. Because of the bloated coverage, you should be able to stream anything on your computer – all the heats, all the rounds up through the medals – of any sport. (I have lately become fascinated by the modern pentathlon which is never televised because the key competitors are all European, usually French.)  You can get to know the athletes, both from the US and the best in the world. If you don’t like gymnastics or swimming or are tired of the American jingoism on the prime time coverage, there will be hundreds of more interesting stories.

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Liu Xiang, London, 2012

Here is the anatomy of every Olympic moment – across all competitions all events—

  • There is always a winner and a loser; and the loser wanted it just as much as the winner. The loser’s story will be just as interesting.
  • There will be a person who comes in third, and one who will just miss the podium, which is why third is almost as good as winning. The biggest disappointment is not coming in second but coming in fourth.
  • There were preliminaries and qualifying rounds that were just as rigorous and part of the years of struggle just to make it into the Games; everyone participating as won something.
  • There were injuries to overcome and recuperate from.
  • There are the new, inexperienced, butterfly-stomached phenoms; there are veterans who fight aging and disappointment to give it one last try – next week’s blog will highlight this theme.
  • There is the moment of winning, of triumph; it will be a moment of defeat for someone else.
  • Families and Nations of the medalists will be bursting with pride, as well they should. Good thing the bloated coverage should allow them to actually see their athlete who is highly unlikely to be one of the chosen to make it to network television.

This is what will happen. There will be three winners in each sport. There will be athletes thrilled to represent their country and athletes happy just to be there. There will be absurd examples of cheating and gut-wrenching examples of good sportsmanship. There will be exhilaration, heartbreak, teamwork, risks that pay off, sacrifices that are all worth it, eye-popping performances, disappointment, camaraderie, and patriotic tears.

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The world will get the boost that it needs. Moment after moment of triumph and struggle will remind us of how far and how fast we have come, how high we can achieve, and how strong we can be.


Fair Warning — This is the first of three blogs on the Olympics—next week: Olympic Athletic Performance & the Four Year Interval

Today’s blog is also brought to you by the Daily Post word of the day: Muse


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