I spent this past weekend with family, and boy howdy, did we watch a lot of Olympics. We watched slopestyle, marveling at the tricks and big air. We gawked at giant slalom, speed skating and bobsledding, and excitedly recounted some of our favorite Olympic stories from years past.
We even watched Eddie the Eagle, a heartwarming movie about a not-very-good ski jumper who nonetheless persisted and competed in the 1988 winter olympics, because he was basically the first dude in his country to dare to do the event. He became famous for his infectious underdog story and earnestness.
It’s cheesy and wonderful, much like the presentation of much of the real-life olympics coverage. And I just about eat it up.
We’re not exactly a jock family, but we are absolutely a runner family—my dad ran marathons (including Boston) throughout my young life and coached me when I was little, and my college XC races became family events. Later, we’d organize family holidays around races, and we still do. So, there’s a bit of priming there for the specific spirit of the olympics: individual excellence that reflects, supposedly, on the values of the team. All of which is done under the banner of a beautiful dream: countries coming together in peaceful competition, celebrating the human body, mind, and spirit at its absolute best.
Of course, the reality of the olympics is much more complicated. Reporter Dave Zirin has done astounding work looking at the dark side of the Rio 2016 games (as well as the World cup, which also took place there in 2016), how the city displaced poor folks to build new facilities, how a security and surveillance state cropped up there under the banner of making the city “safe” for the games. Here’s a grim quote that captures part of what actual rio citizens experienced in preparing for the event: “At this point, we’re talking about about 61 percent of people in the whole entire nation of Brazil say they wish the Olympics had never darkened their door. All they’ve brought is debt, displacement and hypermilitarization.”
Olympic games are devastatingly expensive for host cities, even in less dire circumstances. And this is all on the macro level, to say nothing of cheating, human rights abuses and this entire case on the more personal level for teams and athletes.
So where does that leave the conscientious viewer? Because in and around the too-pat edited coverage, complete with easy narratives and product placement, there are inspiring stories. And watching athletes at their absolute peak compete and complete feats of superhuman speed, strength, technique and poise is hard to not get excited about, at least for me.
How about you folks? Do you also have a complex relationship with the olympics, or other major sporting events? Let us know in the comments!