What can you expect to see every four years? A U.S. presidential election. A Canadian federal election (at least in theory). February 29. The Summer Olympics. Oh, and the inevitable barrage of Olympic-sized complaints and protests.
In just the first few days of the London 2012 Olympics, we’ve already seen plenty of high-performance protesting. Cabbie demonstrations over lane closures created traffic jams in downtown London. A march through Trafalgar Square criticized the Games excessive corporate influence. There were also controversies about the use of the military, a lack of attention to poverty and free speech, the placement of the Olympic cauldron and on and on.
Even the prestigious medical journal The Lancet got into the act: a week before the Games opened, an editorial decried the Olympic sponsorships of McDonalds and Coca-Cola. “The Games should encourage physical activity, promote healthy living and inspire the next generation to exercise. Marring this healthy vision has been the choice of junk food and drink giants as major sponsors of the event,” the editors raged.
It’s a great start to be sure, but can the Olympic grousing maintain such a punishing pace over the long haul?
As the world’s single most-publicized event, the Summer Olympics have become as much a touchstone for complainers and protesters as they are for athletes and spectators. Perhaps that’s a good thing.
While cynics often dismiss events like the Olympics as tribalism in sportswear, there is in fact a basic, primal human urge to congregate riotously in a communal setting. As Barbara Ehrenreich noted in her 2007 book Dancing in the Streets, clapping, cheering and public dancing used to be regular occurrences in everyday life; unfortunately this sort of expressive joy has been squeezed out of modern life. “For most people in the world today,” Ehrenreich writes, “the experience of collective ecstasy is likely to be found, if it is found at all, at a sports event.” The Games are thus one of the last remaining links to our more voluble and expressive past. She also notes, however, that the modern protest movement shares many of these same carnival-like characteristics, including costumes, music and street theatre. Every four years, we get to indulge in both sorts of tribalism.
But even the prospect of long-lost communal experiences doesn’t provide the full explanation for why the Olympics are so successful, or necessary. It also happens to be good old-fashioned fun to watch skilled athletes expend maximum effort in direct competition after years of intense training, and to follow their individual storylines.
Of course it can be equally enjoyable to watch athletes who aren’t quite up to world standards, but nonetheless demonstrate the requisite effort and good intentions. Early in the London Games, for example, Niger’s first-ever Olympic rower Hamadou Djibo Issaka captured the hearts of spectators despite finishing far behind more seasoned competitors. Stories of this kind, reminiscent of the exploits of hapless British ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards at Calgary’s 1988 Winter Olympics, provide the average viewer with the means to insert themselves into the spectacle vicariously.
On this note, The Lancet’s grouchy complaint that the world would be a healthier place without official Olympic hamburger joints and soda fountains likely misses the greatest benefit of all to the international sporting extravaganza. The Games pay endless tribute to the notion of sport as a worthwhile endeavour and offer up priceless advertising time for an impressively wide range of obscure physical activities.
Badminton? Sculling? Table tennis? Fencing? Compared to the major professional sports leagues, a great many healthy, fun and accessible activities languish in near-obscurity most of the time. The Olympics is the only opportunity these activities have to present themselves to a global audience on an equal footing with more established pastimes.
Without a quadrennial boost in interest, even a familiar sport like swimming would likely struggle for attention and participants. So if the corporate muscle of McDonalds or Coke thinks there’s an advantage to be found in raising awareness for dressage or the triathlon—well, more power to them.
The Olympics are entirely enjoyable in their own right as spectator sport. If it convinces some of those spectators to take up a new physical activity, that’s a good thing too—regardless of who’s paying the bills. And if, at the same time, it offers us a rare chance to celebrate (or protest) together, so much the better.