Saturday, April 19, 2008

One World, Five Rings, Six Billion Moral Quandaries

Life is easier for sports fans who don't give a rat's ass about the Olympics. They can watch the slow-motion catastrophe that will be the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing with a clear conscience. They're not inadvertently supporting the nasty piece of work that is China's government. Not so long as they don't dress themselves, have a television, or eat food, that is. Otherwise, they're as involved with China as is the International Olympic Committee-just a little less publicly.

Unfortunately for yours truly, I like the Olympics. The four Games I was lucky enough to attend and cover remain among the highest highlights of my increasingly bygone sportswriting career. I say that despite the fact I spend one of them covering Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, the reductio ad absurdum of the Olympics, sports, journalism, and possibly Western civilization, which isn't to say it wasn't fun sometimes. You can take the boy out of the tabloid, but....

The Olympics come with a lot of ethical baggage whether they're held in a sclerotic dictatorship or, say, the bustling Sun Belt city of Atlanta, where I had the unpleasure of watching my profession attempt to ruin the life of Richard Jewell, an innocent man, out of slipshod stupidity, and where the good old American profit motive was flaunted as an ideology 24/7 from torch lighting to extinguishing. The very idea that the world will give up its infinite number of self-inflicted miseries for three weeks because of a track meet is foolishness carried to a sublime level.

As any fan knows, the line between folly and glory is a thin one. The thing about the Olympics is that sometimes, usually just for a few seconds, the folly becomes glory and sports does put the world on hold, transcending money, power, hatred, etc. to display whatever it is about games that fascinates almost everyone on earth at least once in their lives.

I was there when Michael Johnson set the 200 meter record. I've seen the ski jump, and I've seen three Marathon leaders come through the tunnel into the big stadium. I saw Muhammed Ali light the torch (Atlanta, no less). At those moments, human life was a bullshit-free zone. I was part of something way bigger than myself. Billions of dollars and endless hypocrisy may seem a high price to pay for a few seconds of transcendence. I say that's a better psychic return on investment than most human enterprises deliver.

Which brings us to the Beijing Games. Many things have and will go wrong with that particular track meet, for fans, athletes, and most of all, the government of China. This need not have happened, but seeing as how China's leaders are as clueless and arrogant as the IOC, it did. Seeing as how holier-than-thou breastbeating has become the nation's default mode of political and sports commentating, this has spawned calls to a) ignore, b) boycott, c) abolish the Olympics.

I vote no on all three propositions. A) is the easiest to dismiss. I like watching the Games. I know they'll have a tough time breaking through the Red Sox boosterism that has become the default mode of Boston journalism, but I'll manage.

As for B, it's really too foolish to be considered. We've had two major Olympic boycotts in my lifetime. The US-led boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow notably failed to end the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan. It did, however, leave a lasting gap in the lives of many fine American athletes. Way to go Jimmy! The 1984 Soviet bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics did unleash Mary Lou Retton on an innocent American public, but we gritted our teeth and won
the Cold War anyway.

Two things need mentioning here. One is that Americans should be aware that as far as Olympic protesting goes, the world is asking us where do we get off. The nation of John Yoo, Abu Gharaib, and the occupation of Iraq has no moral standing to lecture China, ugly as China's government surely is. If the 2008 Games were in Atlanta, or Chicago, or any other U.S. city, there would have been just as many protestors on the streets of London and Paris as the torch went by as there were to call China names. Probably more.

The other is a simple fact. The world's, and especially the U.S.'s, relationship with China is a complex one where morality was checked at the door a good many years ago. China is our national loan shark for God's sake. Snooting them over the Olympics is profoundly futile. When the Games are done, we'll still be buying their crap-because we need it. Until we're willing to change that, self-respect requires we try not to get too pious about China's many awful actitivities.

C) strikes me as the silliest option of all. It comes from that uniquely American viewpoint that if something isn't perfect, it's worthless and should be abolished so that we can feel more like we're perfect. Improving the imperfect is messy, difficult, and time-consuming, so fuck it.

This "why do" spirit, of course, is why life in these here United States is going so wonderfully in 2008. See how happy everybody is?


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