Sunday, July 31, 2016

The 2016 Summer Olympics

Less than a week from now, the 2016 Summer Olympics will open in Rio de Janerio. To say I am excited would be an understatement, for I absolutely love the Olympics. I always have. I remember being enthralled watching the 1984 Summer Olympics as an eight-year old, imagining myself one day being some sort of track-and-field star myself and standing on the podium to receive a medal on behalf of my country. Four years ago, watching the opening ceremony of the London Games, I freely admit that I got a bit weepy when the seven nominated teenagers jogged around the stadium to lit the Olympic cauldron to the sound of Caliban's Dream, a hauntingly beautiful song which had been specially written for the occasion.

The Olympics is nothing less than magic created by humans. At its best, it gives one hope that the world can be the peaceful paradise or excellence and virtue we all want it to be.

Of course, this year's Olympics has had more than its share of preliminary troubles, what with the Zika virus, the drug-related ban on Russian athletes, public safety concerns, fears of terrorist attacks, and the common stories of inefficiency and corruption involving the construction of stadiums and infrastructure. I dearly hope - indeed, I pray - all that will turn out well and the troubles will be forgotten as soon as the epic music rises up and the opening ceremony begins.

Like most other good ideas, the Olympics was first thought up by the Greeks. According to the legends, the first Olympic Games consisted of a series of races held by five brothers, semi-divine beings known as dactyls, to entertain Zeus when he was a newborn. The poet Pindar said that the games were established by Hercules. Although history becomes murkier the farther back we go, the traditional date of the first Olympic games is said to be 776 BC, not long after the end of the so-called "Greek Dark Ages" between the fall of Bronze Age civilization and the emergence of Classical Greek civilization. It's as good a date as any, I suppose.

As with the modern games, the ancient Olympic Games were held every four years (other games were held in other years). Every polis was required to observe a truce, called the "ekecheiria", and not engage in war for the duration of the games, so that athletes could travel to the games and return home in safety. The competitions featured many sports we still see at the games today: foot races, long jumps, discus throwing, and wrestling. Winning athletes were heaped with honors in their polis, sometimes had statues commissioned in their honor and received benefits from the state. Even today, the torch relay that carries the Olympic flame to the opening of the games always begins in Olympia. I like this, for it manifests a very real connection between the ancient world and our own time.

The modern Olympics began in 1896, being the brainchild of a wonderful Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee. He idealized classical civilization and hoped that the revival of the Olympic tradition would help bring some of its values back into the modern world. I happen to agree with Coubertin on the need for the modern world to rediscover many of the values of classical civilization, which is probably the main reason I find the Olympics so enthralling. The Greeks believed in excellence and virtue, both of which we all too often lack in the early 21st Century. Competition is natural and healthy, so what better way is there to channel it than through athletic competitions? As with the World Cup, isn't it better to have national rivalries played out in the sports arena or the playing field rather than on bloody battlefields?

The Olympics also demonstrates the profound yet often ignored difference between patriotism and nationalism. I'm a patriotic American, as any reader of this blog knows, so naturally I cheer on American Olympians and feel a sense of pride and delight when I see them presented with medals as the Star Spangled Banner plays. But I'm no nationalist. There should never be anger or resentment when another nation's athletes best our own, nor should the defeated be mocked or made fun of. We should respect the courage and prowess of athletes from all the competing nations. After all, in addition to being citizens of our respective nations, we are all citizens of the world.

One of my favorite parts of the Olympics is the Parade of Nations, where the completing athletes of the different nations march in under their flag. Appropriately, the Greeks always enter first, with the other nations appearing in alphabetical order according to the host nation's language. Looking at the eager faces of the young athletes, all of whom had to overcome tremendous obstacles to get to where they are, fills me with admiration and delight. Nations like the United States, France, China, and Germany might send hundreds of athletes to the games (this year, it seems that my nation if sending four hundred and four athletes), but I feel an especial appreciation for the small number of participants from less prosperous nations. The tiny nation of Togo, for example, is sending only one, a female rower named Claire Akossiwa. This woman will be on the same global stage as everyone else, representing her country and no doubt being cheered on by the people back at home. When she marches into that stadium under the Togolese flag, I will applaud heartily.

However, there is one aspect of the Parade of Nations that raises my eyebrows, and those of many others. As the teams march past the box where the host nation's leaders are sitting, it is an accepted tradition to dip their flags as a sign of respect. Only one nation refuses to do this: the United States. The law that created the United States Flag Code specifies that the flag "should not be dipped to any person or thing". Now, anyone who reads my blog knows how seriously I take this sort of thing. I'm the kind of guy who marks on his kitchen calendar what days the flag is supposed to be displayed so that I don't forget. But we're talking about the Olympics here, We should know the difference between pride and arrogance. By being the only nation that refuses to dip our flag, we are looking like a the jerk who refuses to thank the host of a dinner party. This is what I think should be done. Rather than dip their flags to the host nation's seat box, all flags should be dipped to the Olympic flag as they pass it. This is in line with the tradition of flags on naval vessels being dipped in salute as they pass one another. It does not violate the flag code, since the Olympic flag represents the Olympics as an institution and is therefore not a "person or thing".

When the games themselves begin, I will watch as much as I can. I will cheer on the American athletes and see their own achievements and medals as being earned for our country as well as for the athletes themselves. I will respect and admire the athletes of the other nations. There is nothing like the Olympics that compels you to embrace your identity as a citizen of your nation as well as your common humanity as a citizen of the world. And through it all, we can hear the faint voices of the ancient Greeks whispered to us, telling us that it's never too late to rediscover the virtues of the past and reincorporate them into our own time.

Bring on the music. I'm ready.

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