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Olympic Angst

social responsibility, olympicsWhat I'm about to say is likely to frustrate a few of you.  I hope you will one day forgive me.  I just can't help myself.  I have a few thoughts I'd like to share about the olympics.  The truth is that all of the olympic hype sorta bothers me.  Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there is a lot of good that comes out of the olympics and you can't help but feel impressed by the determination and will that drives some humans to accomplish such remarkable athletic feats.  Will and determination do impress me, no doubt.  But there are two elements of the whole olympic experience that really bother me.

First, is the general lack of commitment it requires of the majority of us.  Sure, we are fascinated by the will it took to train so hard.  We may even have a chat with our friends about how we are going to develop that sorta will AFTER we munch down another bag of popcorn, but we are unlikely to get very far before something sweet or shiny catches our eye.  Not only do the vast majority of us do nothing more than stare at a television screen with our buts glued to a couch as we watch the olympics, but we don't really even know much about what it is we are watching.  We flip on the tube to watch...I don't know...archery.  We watch for maybe five minutes because someone we trust said its really worth watching.  After five minutes we've learned everything there is to know about archery from the commentator and we are ready to move on.  When its all over we feel a sense of connection with our nation's victors and may even yell out, "we won" as if we have somehow contributed to victory through our sloth and gluttony.  It is in many ways a microcosm of all that is ridiculous about the world we live in.  We want to have our very short attention spans satisfied every minute of every day, we don't want to have to do anything to earn that satisfaction, and most importantly we want to feel as though we're better than everybody else without doing anything.

Second, considering most of us will play no more role in the olympics than exercising our fingers as we surf through the competitions on our television set, we sure do pour an awful lot of money and time into the event.  We can't seem to find enough money to pay our school teachers, but we somehow manage to scrape up $40 million to plan and implement the opening ceremony.  Most of those I know who have been glued to their couch over the past couple of days have also repeatedly told me they have no time to (grow their own food, cook from scratch, recycle, volunteer at the food pantry, etc.)  I find it amazing that they have all somehow managed to find the time to devote a week or more to continuous coverage of a sporting event.  It must be a miracle!

Imagine the carbon footprint of this one event!  Imagine the waste stream from this one event!  Imagine for a minute just how little any of it matters!  My point is not to vilify the olympics.  I don't really have anything against the olympics.  My point is to put it all in perspective and to ask a bit about our priorities and our commitments.  What if we each exercised the same will and determination as the olympic athletes we watch?  What if we funneled that will and determination into solving social and environmental problems?  What if we devoted the same amount of time and money we spend entertaining ourselves into helping others?  What if we lived in a world in which those who give their lives to making the world a better place were applauded?  What if instead of passing an olympic torch we were committed to passing on a world and a way of life with a future?  What if?

Vincent M. Smith

  • http://www.silentsprings.com/blog silentsprings

    Great points. Thanks for sharing and for constructively criticizing. Vince

  • http://www.silentsprings.com/blog silentsprings

    Jack, thanks for your thoughtful response here. I appreciate how you have introduced a few variables here I had not considered. Critical analysis at its best.

  • Kolby Bray-Hoagland

    That is an awesome FB post!! You should enter this in the "Best of Facebook" competition!

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.braden.9 Peter Braden

    Hell yeah! 100 m race, 400 m race --- let's start talking about the human race.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jack.buchanan.9480 Jack Buchanan

    I'd like to add to the list. What gets me personally about the Olympics is the the conflation of athletics with competition and nationalism. For the first two, excepting head-to-head team sports like basketball or soccer, there is no necessary connection between delivering one's own personal best athletic performance (and indeed the "best" athletic performances in the world), and the out-performance of other athletes who happen to also be performing at that particular time in that particular place. Sure, the sort of primal compulsion that an atmosphere of competition activates in athletes can be a potent motivational force pushing athletes to their outermost mental and physiological limits. In this way, one could make the case that it "brings out the best" in athletes, and the Olympics certainly does a spectacular job of focusing this intensity of competition on to one tiny spatio-temporal spot like a laser beam. But on the other hand, the stress and anxiety that such intense competition induces can also bring out the worst in people. How many Olympic-worthy athletes are there out there that do we not see competing simply because they could not, or chose not to, bear the stress? And of the ones who do make it, many end up succumbing to the overwhelming pressure, not being able to deliver a performance on par with their best because their nerves simply get the best of them (how many times have we seen predicted champions choke in events that they have consistently nailed thousands of times in practice?). Not to mention the physical toll that this stress--four years in the making--takes on athletes' bodies and minds, and the profound angst that those who fail come away with, forced to live with for the next four years or indeed the rest of their lives. All this seems to be especially true for non-race events that involve artistic expression and evade objective modes of evaluation: is it really inconceivable that the likes of gymnasts, divers, and figure skaters could deliver just as (if not more) stunning performances in the absence of some arbitrary imperative to beat out an elite group of their peers? Of course not. Nationalism then adds a further dimension that brings the whole competition thing to a new level of absurdity. Now, not only are athletes' performances defined against those of other individuals', they get further conflated with the (totally unrelated) divisions and rivalries among the artificial constructs of nation-states. In this way, athletes are forced to carry the additional burden of an entire nation. And it's a double-edged sword: if they lose, they let down their home country as if some sort of defected patriot; if they win, they only serve to reinforce the very concepts of separateness and competition upon which the nation-state construct depends. I think it's time to get past the idea that competition is a necessary evil for inducing "the best" in athletics (or any human endeavor for that matter), and that nationalism is a somehow a natural accomplice in this crime. I believe both concepts are outdated, and look forward to a future when the Olympics get pared down to what really counts: sheer athleticism--pure, beautiful, and awe-inspiring.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jack.buchanan.9480 Jack Buchanan

    What gets me about the Olympics is the the conflation of athletics with competition and nationalism. For the first two, excepting head-to-head team sports like basketball or soccer, there is no necessary connection between delivering one's own personal best athletic performance (and indeed the "best" athletic performances in the world), and the out-performance of other athletes who happen to also be performing at that particular time in that particular place. Sure, the sort of primal compulsion that an atmosphere of competition activates in athletes can be a potent motivational force pushing them to their outermost mental and physiological limits. In this way, one could make the case that it "brings out the best" in athletes, and the Olympics certainly does a spectacular job of focusing this intensity of competition on to one tiny spatio-temporal spot like a laser beam. But on the other hand, the stress and anxiety that such intense competition induces can also bring out the worst in people. How many Olympic-worthy athletes are there that do we not see competing simply because they could not, or chose not to, bear the stress? And of the ones who do make it, many end up succumbing to the overwhelming pressure, not being able to deliver their best performance simply because their nerves get the best of them. (How many times have we seen predicted champions choke in events that they have consistently nailed thousands of times in practice?) Not to mention the physical toll that this stress--four years in the making--takes on athletes' bodies and minds, and the profound angst that those who fail come away with, forced to live with for the next four years or indeed the rest of their lives. All this seems to be especially true for non-race events that involve artistic expression and evade objective modes of evaluation: is it really inconceivable that the likes of gymnasts, divers, and figure skaters could deliver just as (if not more) stunning performances in the absence of some arbitrary imperative to beat out an elite group of their peers? Of course not. Nationalism then adds a further dimension that brings the whole competition thing to a new level of absurdity. Now, not only are athletes' performances defined against those of other individuals', they get further conflated with the (totally unrelated) divisions and rivalries among the artificial constructs of nation-states. In this way, athletes are forced to carry the additional burden of an entire nation. And it's a double-edged sword: if they lose, they let down their home country as if some sort of defected patriot; if they win, they only serve to reinforce the very concepts of separateness and competition upon which the nation-state construct depends. I think it's time to get past the idea that competition is a necessary evil for inducing "the best" in athletics (or any human endeavor for that matter), and that nationalism is a somehow a natural accomplice in this crime. I believe both concepts are outdated, and look forward to a future when the Olympics get pared down to what really counts: sheer athleticism--pure, beautiful, and awe-inspiring.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jack.buchanan.9480 Jack Buchanan

    I would like to add to the list. What gets me personally about the Olympics is the the conflation of athletics, competition and nationalism. For the first two, excepting head-to-head team sports like basketball or soccer, there is no necessary connection between delivering one's own personal best athletic performance (and indeed the "best" athletic performances in the world), and the out-performance of other athletes who happen to also be performing at that particular time in that particular place. Sure, the sort of primal compulsion that an atmosphere of competition activates in athletes can be a potent motivational force pushing athletes to their outermost mental and physiological limits. In this way, one could make the case that it "brings out the best" in athletes, and the Olympics certainly does a spectacular job of focusing this intensity of competition on to one tiny spatio-temporal spot like a laser beam. But on the other hand, the stress and anxiety that such intense competition induces can also bring out the worst in people. How many Olympic-worthy athletes are there out there that do we not see competing simply because they could not, or chose not to, bear the stress? And of the ones who do make it, many end up succumbing to the overwhelming pressure, not being able to deliver a performance on par with their best because their nerves simply get the best of them (how many times have we seen predicted champions choke in events that they have consistently nailed thousands of times in practice?). Not to mention the physical toll that this stress--four years in the making--takes on athletes' bodies and minds, and the profound angst that those who fail come away with, forced to live with for the next four years or indeed the rest of their lives. All this seems to be especially true for non-race events that involve artistic expression and evade objective modes of evaluation: is it really inconceivable that the likes of gymnasts, divers, and figure skaters could deliver just as (if not more) stunning performances in the absence of some arbitrary imperative to beat out an elite group of their peers? Of course not. Nationalism then adds a further dimension that brings the whole competition thing to a new level of absurdity. Now, not only are athletes' performances defined against those of other individuals', they get further conflated with the (totally unrelated) divisions and rivalries among the artificial constructs of nation-states. In this way, athletes are forced to carry the additional burden of an entire nation. And it's a double-edged sword: if they lose, they let down their home country as if some sort of defected patriot; if they win, they only serve to reinforce the very concepts of separateness and competition upon which the nation-state construct depends. I think it's time to get past the idea that competition is a necessary evil for inducing "the best" in athletics (or any human endeavor for that matter), and that nationalism is a somehow a natural accomplice in this crime. I believe both concepts are outdated, and look forward to a future when the Olympics get pared down to what really counts: sheer athleticism, pure, beautiful, and awe-inspiring.

  • Philip Grupe

    There is certainly some merit in your concerns, but it seems as though you're generalizing how everybody receives the Olympics based on the worst offenders in your eyes. I don't necessarily get the same nationalistic pride at watching somebody else do something athletic while I sit around eating popcorn, but I do love to see the incredible athleticism displayed in events connected to activities in which I do take part (cycling and kayaking/rowing, especially), and it's just fun to see some of the best athletes in the world compete against each other. My girlfriend is a former rower, and she gets a thrill watching the best athletes perform in her favorite sport, on a stage that is not duplicated anywhere else. Going by your logic, it would also make sense to question the existence of professional and collegiate sports, simply because 90% of the people "involved" are just spectators.

    You raise some legitimate questions we should ask about our societal priorities, but the Olympics are hardly unique offenders in this regard, as they are a fraction of the cost that we divert away from education and social programs. Also look at military spending, oil subsidies, political advertising, and all of the money private citizens pour into sporting events and paraphernalia, school athletics, going to the movies, eating out, new cars and electronic gadgets, designer clothing, etc.

    I would also be curious to see what the international policy implications are (if any) of keeping vs eliminating the Olympics. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that these friendly competitions actually foster good relations between countries.

  • Joel G.

    I like your comments here better than mine...though I still think it could be less commercialized. Thanks for sharing.

  • Galen Anderson

    It is liking having both when you watch NBC coverage. Every other commercial is an ad for one of the parties, attacking the other. November seems not close enough.

  • Galen Anderson

    It is liking having both when you watch NBC coverage. Every other commercial is an ad for one of the parties, attacking the other. November seems not close enough.

  • Tinamarie Haire

    I'll surely be glad when that national election is over...Sean will be arriving there Sept 6ht BYUI

  • Tinamarie Haire

    I'll surely be glad when that national election is over...Sean will be arriving there Sept 6ht BYUI

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.d.galbraith Joel D. Galbraith

    I have conflicted feelings on this one. don't have TV, do i dont know what i'm missing. but of like to be watching. at the same time, i have no argument with points you make and generally prefer non-US network coverage of the olympics. mostly just want to seed the sport and skip all the commentary. Next up: national elections!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.d.galbraith Joel D. Galbraith

    I have conflicted feelings on this one. don't have TV, do i dont know what i'm missing. but of like to be watching. at the same time, i have no argument with points you make and generally prefer non-US network coverage of the olympics. mostly just want to seed the sport and skip all the commentary. Next up: national elections!

  • http://www.silentsprings.com/blog/ Melissa S

    Why would these comments frustrate us? I think most of the people reading here recognize the inherent conflict in such an event. It has a huge carbon footprint, but it creates jobs. It costs money but brings in money. It causes people to sit on their butts all day and watch tv, but it also keeps people from sitting in their butts all day and watching the Kardashians.

    I love the Olympics because it is about community. About how we are all the same, despite being seperated by (sometimes arbitrary) geographical and cultural divides. Because it pushes the boundaries on gender roles. Because I LOVE watching a sport I have never heard of and seeing some althete from some country I have never heard of win a medal (or not) despite the odds.

    Most people in this country are not lucky enough to have studied abroad or to have visited the world, and this is a way for them to think outside their country and themselves and to weep silly tears over Jamaican bobsled teams. Just for a minute.

    Not to mention that the Olympic games are traditionally a time when all countries agree to stop bloodshed, even for just those ~20 days.

    Does it suck that it is not perfect? Of course, but I think we all realize that and apprecite the conflict. And sometimes it is just fun to stop for a minute and root for the synchranized swimmers.

    I think we get it. I really do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.gutrich John J Gutrich

    Vince you made me think of a line of a book I'm reading by Colman McCarthy called "I'd rather teach peace"... he asks a crowd if they have ever heard the names of these 3 people... the crowd responds quickly to all 3 correctly - there were all generals. He then provides 3 names on another list - no one answers correctly- they all spent their lives promoting peace through non-violence. It strikes the same chord when I stopped by with the girls to watch an Ashland football game on the spur of the moment and sat on the visitors side. The young high school boys got into a huddle and all collectively cheered " Kill ". The proud parents of the state champ football team cheered them on. And it really turned my stomach beacuse I felt we were just one step away from handing these boys guns and pointing them in a different direction. the wrong direction. that said, I understand the need for a standing military and the ultimate sacrifice to defend freedom but to culturally glorify war is just wrong. always has been.....

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