Sunday, August 5, 2012

We should rethink how we as Americans view the Olympics

Today The Economist asks the question "Who is the greatest Olympian?" Media outlets across the United States have given that title to Michael Phelps based on his total number of medals. But the article goes on to mention that if we use that as the sole metric for greatest Olympian, that person will always be a swimmer because of the number of strokes, distances, and team events that sport holds. Seventeen gold medals are handed out each year to folks who spend their lives in the pool.

The Olympics aren't really about medals despite what NBC or the latest Phelps interview might tell you. The Olympics are an ideal, a gathering of nations competing without bullets or bombs. The Olympic spirit is about peace, about dedication and overcoming obstacles, about human rights principles. Phelps doesn't embody that spirit. Perhaps he did when he first arrived on the aquatic scene, but the endorsements, the wealth, the celebrity attention at the expense of the other athletes, the laziness he exhibited in his training...those are not what the spirit of the games is about.

So who better embody the Olympic spirit than Michael Phelps?

How about Afghan sprinter Tahmina Kohistani, who lives in a country where women are treated as subhuman, who had to train while men heckled her to go home and "get behind the man," who faces threats on her life when she returns because she dared to go to the Olympics?
How is this possible? How is someone from a war-ravaged country who trains in a dilapidated stadium, who can’t afford elite sprinter’s footwear allowed to be here, at the 2012 London Games? How is a nation with remnants of radical Islamism, where a woman accused of adultery was shot to death by the Taliban an hour from the capital last month, able to produce an independent-thinking female athlete to compete against the world’s greatest sprinters?
Or how about Palestinian swimmer Sabine Hazboun, who doesn't train in a proper pool and whose trips to training are impaired by the lack of freedom of movement because of the restrictions Israel places on Palestinians?

Or perhaps Somalian runner Mohamed Hassan Mohamed has "had to survive warring militias, Islamic insurgents, and the occasional stray bullet along his workout route?"

Or Peruvian marathoner Gladys Tejeda, who lives in such a remote village that she had never heard of the Olympics until four years ago?
Read the articles I've linked to. Read about these athletes' lives, as you won't hear about them on NBC. They are just four of hundreds of athletes who overcome great obstacles and risk their lives to get into the games, names who just happened to attract the attention of journalists in search of a feel-good story. How can a man who became so bored with swimming that he was too lazy to properly train be deemed the "Greatest Olympian?" How do Phelps or Ryan Lochte or other athletes who never have to think about having the proper equipment or personal coaches or state-of-the-art training facilities embody the Olympic spirit if they can't understand or appreciate how special it is to be there, if they're there for fame and fortune?

Look, I love when USA athletes win. I love seeing Americans of all colors and backgrounds and creeds stand atop the podium while the Stars and Stripes is rising and the anthem which celebrates it is playing because I know that the idea of America embodies the spirit with which the Olympic Games were created. Patriotism isn't "Fuck yeah, America" and thinking you're better than everyone else because you happened to be born on a certain portion of soil on this planet. Patriotism isn't "Win All the Medals." Patriotism isn't NBC covering only the contests in which Americans are involved. America put human rights on the cranial map - human rights, peace, the ideals on which the Olympics were founded. Failing to understand that spirit is quite the opposite of patriotism. It's simple arrogance. Calling Michael Phelps the "Greatest Olympian" is just an expression of this arrogance.

If I had to choose a "Greatest Olympian," I think I'd pick Jesse Owens, who won gold before the white supremacist eyes of Adolf Hitler. There's a heck of a lot of justice in that.

No comments:

Post a Comment