It’s been four long years, but in just two more months, the Olympics finally return. Despite the atrocious, controversial logo, I can’t help but be excited for it. Michael Phelps makes one final lap to attempt to hold the most gold medals in Olympic history; and then presumably smelt them down into what would undoubtedly be the most epic bong in human history. The U.S. will field one of the most talented basketball teams ever assembled. But frankly, I’ll be watching all the little esoteric events that I can, because the Olympics, in an odd way, aren’t entirely about sports.
The Olympics are a bit of a sports peculiarity in that they are comprised of sports oddities. Think about it; when was the last time you watched a swim meet, amateur wrestling or gymnastics? Unless you’re the parent of a high school student, your answer is probably “the last time the Olympics were on.” And those aren’t even close to the most esoteric competitions – curling, a sport widely mocked by most everyone who isn’t Canadian, is an Olympic sport. But when it comes to the Olympics, we watch anyway.
What makes us tune in to watch sports we don’t ordinarily give a moment’s thought? In a word, patriotism. Well, vicarious patriotism. We don’t really care about what the competition is, we just know we want to win. We want the glory, even if it isn’t ours. We want that vicarious thrill of victory and superiority that can only come from sitting on a couch watching people we don’t know try to beat other people we don’t know at some sport we’ve heard of twice in our lives. We feel that way about almost all sports, but the Olympics magnifies this beyond any other sporting event, except the World Cup.
In a sense, the Olympics are a substitute for other forms of international conflict, or at least another form of it. The United States never engaged in warfare with the Soviet Union, but vigorously competed against them in the Olympics. There’s a reason the Miracle on Ice is so famous, and it’s not just because the United States were substantial underdogs. When we watch our gymnastics team attempt to reclaim the gold from the Chinese this summer, there’s an undeniable subtext to this rivalry that extends beyond the mat – it symbolizes the struggle for economic supremacy and global influence the two countries are currently engaged in.
But at the same time, the Olympics are not war or a battle for economic superiority. They don’t have “real” consequences. It’s a form of conflict we can invest ourselves in, knowing that the worst thing that could happen isn’t really so bad. When we win, we can say we won something that epitomizes the human spirit and the resiliency of our nation. When we lose, we can brush it off by saying it’s just sports. Today, with egregious political divides, increasing inequality, and international uncertainty as a result of the economic crisis, it won’t hurt to take a little time and distract ourselves with something that has the potential to lift spirits, not dash them.
This is why we watch the Olympics. It’s why a man deadlifting 1,000 pounds with the aid of unpronounceable drugs that are 14 syllables long and won’t be detectable for another five years, is suddenly the measure of that man’s character and the strength of his country; not just a rather absurd and relatively uninteresting spectacle. And I think that’s great.
People need sports, they need distractions to invest themselves in and reap some benefit from, in order to ignore – if only for a brief time – the problems in their lives and in the world. With the state of affairs in the world right now, the Olympics couldn’t come at a better time.