I know about the problems with the Olympics. I know they are built and funded in ways that will make your blood curdle and your bile rise. I know that the original, Greek-style Olympics were a craven bacchanal, and that the original, 1900’s-style Olympics were planted in a rancid garden of racism, sexism, and the present-day Olympics can often be corporate hagiography.
And yet I still love the Olympics -- like, for real -- and I think it is a good thing to love the Olympics.
I do not mean the Olympics through the relentlessly corny lens of NBC, the channel. Their chubby-fingered attempt to slap America’s collective heartstrings is not even worth parodying, the genre of Olympic puff-piece having folded in on itself a long time ago. NBC’s coverage shows an Olympics that is mostly a swim meet and a gymnastics meet, almost exclusively spectated on by beaming athlete-parents brimming with Americana-colored pride. This is barely what the Olympics really are.
At the same time Olympic cynicism is more accessible than ever -- Olympics Twitter, honestly, is miserable -- we can also get, via NBCOlympics.com, the purest Olympic shot to the vein, ever. Wander around the massive list of events and you will find so many games unspooling without broadcaster commentary, buoyed by nothing but the soothing ocean of crowd noise. This is an incredibly cool move, even if it is mostly brought on by logistical shortcomings of being more ground than any network could possibly cover
The competitions are, without fail, beautiful.* Remove the bad-sports-movie uplift superimposed over so much of these Olympics and you can finally just watch, mercifully, the athletes at work. Their skill level is always evident, even in unfamiliar events, as universal and obvious as a smile. The competition is either taut with plot twists or a champion distances themselves, their mastery a thrill.
I cried watching the Olympics this way. For reasons I’m still not totally sure of, the au naturale broadcast of the women’s shot put final is the first sporting event I can remember that had me leaking tears. I’m not sure how NBC handled Michelle Carter’s last-minute victory, but I do know that, in real time, Carter’s winning heave was a surprising exclamation in the pleasing accountant-like rhythms -- six carefully measured throws per competitor -- of the final. The athletes’ trance of stern concentration, once the last throw landed, melted into a genuine round-robin of hugs. That may sound like terrible viewing. It wasn’t. When it just happens, in front of an unnoticed, hand-held camera, the moment feels more real and full than anything we are told and told and told is inflated with gravitas. There is power in silence.
I have never felt more patriotic than during a timeout in American Iris Wang’s group-play badminton match. Again, the camera is right on the ground, rolling video and audio without anybody really noticing. We are in the 21-year-old Wang’s huddle and we can hear her father-like coach -- clearly more nervous than the athlete -- offer encouragement in good-but-not-great English. The sheer improbability of any member of an Olympic delegation juggling their own country’s language was an unintended, authentic portrait of The American Dream. No matter their skill level, an American athlete in the Olympics is almost categorically an overdog. But the true and vast diversity of the American delegation is a sign that my country -- despite its best efforts -- has done something right.
Is it patronizing to root for those many athletes, from the world’s huge sprinkling of teeny-tiny countries, whose only reward is the participation-trophy thrill of “being there”? My answer has changed from “yes” to “no” since the Opening Ceremonies. The catalyst was Morghan King, the 48 kg weightlifter born and raised only a moderately painful commute away from my own Seattle neighborhood. America is too big, I think, to feel pride in all -- or maybe even most -- of the athletes but the miracle of Olympian performance reveals itself when you get hyper-local. I have driven the same roads, shopped at the same grocery store chains as King, but she has found a way to use these ingredients to boost herself up a steep road of discipline, tenacity, strength. In the same way, every Olympian is somebody’s local Olympian, transforming some neighborhood into a platform to be mighty.
I am focusing on American athletes here by coincidence, I think. Don’t focus too tight on your own country’s athletes -- especially if you are American. The clear dominance of South Korean women’s archery, or of North Korean weightlifter Rim Jong-sim are also as good as it gets, as are the victors of so many other events, even if there is no studio-couch interview to follow. Living and dying with one's own country's dominance is a losing battle, anyhow. It’s a quintessentially American oversight to focus in on USA leading the medal count when the majority of aggregate medals will go home elsewhere.
Get the entire world in the same place, even for something as simple as sports, and it’s basically a mathematical proof that things will get fucked up in a serious way. And still so many athletes have worked and prepared to come with their best. Is there not something noble about this? That question is best answered by hearing a little less and listening a little more.
*Okay, “without fail” is a lie. Golf, horseys, and probably a couple of others can scram.