Friday, July 27, 2012

Playing Nice at the London Olympics

Mitt Romney’s comment yesterday that he found preparation for the London Olympics “disconcerting” was immediately seized upon by English officials and American opponents to point out his diplomatic shortcomings. Prime Minister David Cameron even went for the cheap shot, calling Utah “the middle of nowhere,” which it certainly is, but that’s just rude.

Yet for once, I’m inclined to side with Mr. Romney (insert expressions of incredulity here). Compared to China’s 2008 opening ceremonies, this is going to be a hard contest for the Brits to win. How can you compete with thousands of drummers beating in unison when all you have is a mere 30 Mary Poppins actresses and only one 40-foot Voldemort? If Chinese security guards decided to not show up to work, they would be thrown in a gulag somewhere in Mongolia. But almost all of the British security guards fail to show up to their assigned hotel, and it’s simply “oops, you’re fired.”

Fireworks over the Bird's Nest in 2008 (White House photo by Chris Greenberg)

The Olympics, traditionally a forum for cooperation between nations, have become a spectator sport even when no athletics are involved. In 2008, when China unveiled its grandiose, over the top, and absolutely terrifying opening ceremonies, the world took a good look at the people who were going to run it some day. These ceremonies aren’t just a showcase for a nation’s culture anymore; they are a window into the power and money a country can throw behind what is essentially a meaningless puppet show.

Sure, it’s adorable that Britain – once the most powerful country on earth and, oh yeah, America’s overlord – can put together a grassy knoll with cows and sheep in a huge dome. Unfortunately for them, we already have those, and they’re called petting zoos. What I think Americans are really hoping for from our traditional ally in the West, our companion in such forays as Iraq and Afghanistan, and our lingual brothers and sisters, is a display that shows just how much the West is still the Best. In this particular case of theatric diplomacy, we are sure to lose.

Opera singers perform at the 2008 opening ceremony (White House photo by Eric Draper)

Sadly for the West, a little something called a recession and labor laws will prevent merry old England from even coming close to the spectacle that was the 2008 opening ceremonies. We are just going to have to make due with the sporting events themselves. Of course, swimming laps and jumping on balancing beams isn’t quite as entertaining as watching a 9-year-old lip sync to the voice of another 9-year-old deemed too ugly to perform, but somehow, I think it might be good for us. In the absence of an opening ceremony to overtake all of the actual sports, we might just remember the original intent of the Olympics.

When Pierre de Coubertin founded the Olympic Committee in 1894, he did so to provide an arena for athletes to learn the value of competition at the top tiers of the world. It became one of the only times the great powers of the turbulent 20th century could come together and cooperate. Instead of jealously eyeing each other for signs of strength and weakness during the only part of the games that isn’t a sport, we might just try to revive that sense of collaboration. The endless posturing by countries such as the US, Iran, Israel, China, Brazil, etc., seems like it can only end in one place: more war, more violence, and more death. Yet I think (being the eternal optimist) that if we worked together diplomatically, we might not have to respond to each other militarily. More talking and less strutting might just result in a world where it is possible to agree on more than just the rules of sports.

Or we could just berate England for failing to do the ceremonies as well as we would have. Let’s face it, the ceremonies in Chicago would have included a giant deep dish pizza covered in dollar bills being set aflame with an effigy of Mao on top. Now that would be a ceremony worth watching.

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

-Baron Pierre de Coubertin

All photos in this article are in the public domain.

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