August 25, 2008

And so another Olympics comes to a close. There has been celebration and agonising defeat, disappointment and relief -- but thank God, no competitor deaths this time during the Games themselves. As so many times before there have been deaths in the background, deaths we don't see and hear about only if we make an effort: but we all know about Munich and the bomb in Atlanta, and I was among those who watched in horror and shock as the diver Sergei Chalibashvili spun a little too close to the diving platform, and struck his head on it and was killed. I am told that the diving judges deduct points now, if the diver comes too close to the platform. I am glad to hear it. I never want to see that again.

We know, now, what can be done if an entire country decides to place its unequivocable support behind its hosting city and its athletes - or maybe been reminded, because in culturally-aware patronage structures these sorts of results were the norm. Indeed, outright patronage -- and not its uncaring nephew corporate sponsorship -- is the only other possible cultural support which can equal these displays of culture and athleticism. There is even one who is in a perfect position to do it, for the London Olympics.

(How about it, Ms. Rowling? Beijing set the bar for the world. Wouldn't you like to be the one who re-defines that bar?)

So beautifully unified was the pattern of these Beijing Olympic Games, who thought to notice the absence of corporate logos on every conceivable surface? The Chinese people discovered what it was to have a city with bluer skies, we discovered what it was to have a major event without corporate logos splashed everywhere. By the sounds of it, for them this is one thing that may stick: the sacrifice of the car, balanced out by a more than doubled rapid transit system, balanced out above all by a clean city. Yet the factories did stand idle. After the Paralympic Games, because we will keep buying, they will start up again.

And for us? Are we in our turn so habituated to the corporate logo that we can no longer conceive of alternatives?

The constant subliminal battle of ideology meant that in some eyes, Beijing was in the ultimate no-win situation. Massive protests would have indicated a deep unhappiness, but the lack of protests demonstrated only a non-freedom of speech. Everything flowed absolutely smoothly and pollution became largely a non-issue because of draconian control, even to attempted weather control, but chaos would have spoken only of the inherent weaknesses of centralised power. In the televised pictures and what those in the industry claim to be exceptional camera work we saw the true beauty of Beijing -- very much not a Potemkin village -- but that was only because it was cleaned up. (But what Olympic venue city has ever showed off its ugly side? Vancouver 2010 will have its own significant challenge, there.) Media people travelled the city and the country, respecting guidelines but otherwise without restriction: because China wanted us to see it. In venues of 91,000 spectators, and another few thousands of athletes and support and staff and volunteers, not a single serious incident happened: and so there was far too permeating a security. Yet if anything violent had occurred, who would have been blamed but the inept security?

Even after the bombing during the opening ceremonies, Atlanta never had this public relations nightmare.

Maybe what we have chosen to forget is that the converse side of free speech is courtesy. When did we start waving around a freedom of speaking as though it ought to come with no restrictions of wisdom and restraint and even simple respect of the other?

Priscilla Lopes-Schliep (Canada, 3rd), and Sally McLellan (Australia, 4th), women's 110 metre hurdlesThe Chinese people were given guidelines how to cheer for opponents: and the result was certainly that every athlete was made to feel honoured, from the moment they first entered the Olympic village to ceremony and the playing of their national anthem. Each of the medal ceremonies was carefully sculpted to give the athletes their moment, and every one of the participants visibly showed pride in having been part of it. Even in the opening ceremony parade of athletes, there was a careful gap between the last of the other nations and the entry of the Chinese athletes: and so again we find that each, even the smallest, was given honour in their moment.

We saw some of the fallout in a cameraderie among the athletes, even the traditional macho posturing of the sprint, such as most of us have never seen. In the men's sprints our media placed the credit upon Usain Bolt; but who gets the credit in all the other events, where the losers commiserate with the silver medalist for not having won gold, when the one who just discovered she just barely slipped into bronze in a photo finish and the one who just missed it instantly embrace and start jumping up and down in sheer happiness? (You can't see it in this photograph, but she was grinning and jumping up and down too.) In two cases we did see examples of extremely -- well, it goes so far beyond poor sportsmanship as to no longer fit the term -- but it jumped out so very sharply at us precisely because good sportsmanship -- friendship -- was everywhere.

And yet, ideology never left. Not for the Chinese. Not for anyone.

By the second week, I was starting to feel very sorry for every United States athlete who had been favoured to win and didn't, who fell just short of the coveted -- and needed -- gold, never mind how personally exceptional so many of those performances were. That pressure can't have been pleasant.

It may be time for all of us to re-evaluate.

Ruqaya Al-Ghasara, winning the 200 metres at the 2006 Asian GamesWe know now what absolute multi-level focus can do. Thus the question may no longer be one of whether or not to set out to win a medal, preferably gold in colour, but what parts of our culture we are willing to sacrifice or adapt to do so. On a fast track, did Ruqaya Al Ghasara's hijab cost her the 0.09 seconds from her 22.72 time that she would have needed to qualify for the women's 200 metre finals? Did it contribute to her 0.259 starting time, the slowest of any of the semifinalist runners?

Will we keep trying to balance off athletic success against a financial bottom line?How much do we value the double-specialist ability of our athletes to enter a second, non-athletic career? Do we value our beliefs of what childhood ought to be more than we value the medals they could win?

Is there anything more important than winning the most medals? Should there be?

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