Thursday, August 07, 2008


The 2008 Olympic Games had next to no chance of avoiding disastrous clusterf%@&*s on a daily basis. The government of China and the International Olympic Committee were made for each other. A secretive band of sclerotic old tyrants collaborates with a secretive old band of gym teachers inexplicably given a lot of money and power. What could go wrong?

This is sad. I love the Olympics. On balance, despite supertankers full of spiritual baggage and bullshit, the Games are a good thing. They're just sports writ large, glories and warts magnified through the glass of near-universal attention.

Oh, I forgot. Americans aren't supposed to care about the Olympics. That's the new cynics' mantra in the sports media. Way to reveal yourselves as small-minded provincial boobs, gang. I'm sure most of my fellow citizens would prefer another good hour or so of Brett Favre coverage to watching the opening ceremonies tomorrow night.

I wasn't even opposed to awarding the Games to a nasty dictatorship like China. If moral purity is a requiring for an Olympic host city, better look for a stadium on Mars. Here on our planet, the IOC holds a more realistic standard. They basic five-ring membership on the idea a country is making progress towards decency, not necessarily achieving it. China qualifies. Barely, with a gentleman's D-plus, but it does.

The problem we will see with the Games in the next three weeks is a more fundamental one than China's foreign policy. Sports are supposed to be fun. Fun should be in short supply in Beijing. Repressive governments tend to run by repressed people. There are already reports that the organizers will attempt to discourage the rampant casual sex between Olympic athletes that has been a delightful part of the Games since Baron de Coubertin kicked the bucket. Good luck with that, functionaries!

China's approach to these Olympics has been that of anxious parents having a wealthy relative come to visit. Trouble is, the children they're scrubbing, dressing in best clothes, and ordering to be polite are adults-over a billion of 'em. This is bound to fail. The human nature, for better and worse, of the Chinese people will shine through the official screen. That's all to the good, but it will create those "incidents" Bob Costas will be clucking about.

The thing people don't realize about the Games is that they're ALWAYS held in an armed camp. That was true in Atlanta, let alone Beijing. A friendly armed camp, an armed camp full of sports fans, but an armed camp nontheless. To actually experience the country in which the Games are held, those inside must go outside. Without casting any aspersions on my former sportswriting colleagues, I don't expect that to happen often. It's easy to busily write about some 16-year old teenaged girl gymnast who's America's Daddy's Little Girl this week and ignore the fact that, hey, I'm in China!

China, government and people both, desperately want to impress the rest of the world with the Olympics. Alas, the impression the world is likely to get will be delivered by very, very uptight bureaucrats, many of them armed, who KNOW that if anything happens their bosses don't like, it's their ass. This is liable to cut down on moments of spontaneous human joy, and create an upsurge in unpleasant cultural misunderstands.

Too bad. As the most cursory research by this big-nose Westerner has demonstrated to my satisfaction, China is anything but the nation of automatons the West imagines and China's government wishes. It's a very loopy place in all regards. If people saw that, the Games would be all the success what passes for hearts in its leaders desire.

The Games will be the Games, pretty much. There will be great feats, controversies, a drug scandal or three, and way too much swimming on my TV. And that will be a missed opportunity, for China and the rest of us.

A big miss, befitting a big country.


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