My Love (and Frustration) with the Olympics

I have a confession to make. I love watching the Olympics. Now I suppose as confessions go, it’s not a huge revelation nor one that is likely to change the course of human history. I feel though that a confession is in order because I have a tendency to dislike sporting events, especially those that intentionally or unintentionally bolster displays of nationalism and ignore such things as systemic inequality. The Olympics falls into this sort of place in my head and yet, I really enjoy the Olympic games whenever they come around. It’s a slight conundrum for me and thus I confess to my utter captivation with the current games happening in PyeongChang.

There is more than just a little nostalgia about watching the games. The first Olympics I remember were the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. That’s not entirely correct. I do vaguely remember the Barcelona Summer Olympics but for whatever reason they don’t quite stick out in my memory like the winter games did. At the time, I was eleven and dancing was my life. I loved ballet and so the figure skating competitions appealed to my imagination. I would imagine what it might be like to be one of those athletes one day.

With each passing Olympics I continued to imagine what it might be like to be one of those athletes. I wasn’t a very sporty child, however, and especially when I reached middle and high school I was very firmly pushed into the nerd corner of the teen hierarchy. Still, each Olympic games I thought about it. Even now as a 34-year old, I think about it. I’m probably out of the mogul competitions (those years of dancing took a toll on my knees) but there’s always curling!

I also remember watching the parade of athletes from around the world when I was growing up. Funnily enough, I was never the type that would just root for the US outright. I suppose nationalism was never appealing to me even as a child. I did however, tend to support countries of which I had a passing familiarity – the US, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany. I’m sure you see the pattern. Yes, I admit I was quite Eurocentric in my allegiances growing up. I would always root for the underdogs however. Whoever the commentators had discounted, they would be the ones I cheered for the hardest. (If they were even televised, that is.)

My Eurocentricism has certainly changed over the past ten years. As I have travelled and met people from around the world, those connections have broadened my mind and it’s absolutely reflected in how I watch the Olympic games now. This year, as I watched the parade of athletes I was surprised by the number of countries where I know someone from that place. I think about that person or people when I watch their athletes compete. The same happens for countries where I’ve visited. It reminds me of those trips and the people I met there. I watch the games with my eyes opened to the entire world. I find that I don’t root for any one nation but I root for everyone. It’s kind of great because while it means your team always loses, it also means your team always wins.

I don’t suppose I can write about the Olympics without mentioning some of the things I really can’t stand about them. There is the obvious inequality between nations with immense amounts of funding and those without. There are also the problems associated with the ways in which some host cities or host nations approach their responsibilities. The reflections of systemic inequality throughout the various elements of the Olympics is quite sobering.

I suppose that’s at the heart of why I wish we could do away with the commentary most of the time. I must admit that living in the UK, I much prefer the type of coverage that happens here. You see more of the sports and more of the athletes from other nations. The US tends to focus their coverage almost exclusively on the American athletes (what do you mean there are other countries?) and the games are constantly being interrupted by sponsored ad breaks (remember everyone that Coke is sponsoring all this. I mean it’s impossible to forget as we mention this every five minutes and you see a Coke commercial every three minutes).

What seems to be consistent across both nations’ coverage is the often barely contained condescension whenever any athlete from an underdog nation is competing. Though my heart went out to Loch in the men’s luge final, I was honestly elated for Austria’s Gleirscher and a small part of that elation was because the commentators had said before Loch’s run that both the American, Mazdzer and Loch would push his run to a bronze medal at best. The unchecked hubris exhibited by the commentators was even more ridiculous watching the replay of those runs and it happens across all of the competition.

There’s also the gendered nature of the coverage from a number of the commentators. This tends to alternately leave me shaking my head (consistently referring to female athletes as “girls”) or leave me shaking with rage (comments like “she’s feisty and such a diva” or referring to the athlete’s physical appearance). While we’re on it, the ageism is truly spectacular, too. Any athletes under 20 or over 30 seem to get no end of comments about their age – all discussion of Red Gerard’s gold medal had to involve some sort of “joke” about his youth.

Yesterday while we were watching the coverage of the day’s events, Jeremy turned to me to ask whether I liked any of the commentators. Each segment seemed to produce some sort of evidence of everyday bias which I felt compelled to point out. I tend to do this while watching any and all things, commercials, films, television shows, sports. (I’m incredibly fun to watch movies with – if your definition of fun involves ruining everything.) There are certainly commentators who are better than others, but the overall tone of the coverage tends to be one that leaves me a bit frustrated or just sad.

In all honesty, despite these sorts of things, I still get excited for the Olympics. I still watch as much of the competition as I can (with the full commentary). I still love watching such talented people perform with such skill and passion. There’s just something compelling about the games that keeps me coming back to it every time they come around. Maybe it is that often remarked upon yet trite sentiment that they bring the world together for a brief time to celebrate human achievement. Perhaps it is trite and perhaps we fall short of this ideal but it is something worth striving for.


Featured photograph by Paul Hudson.

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