At the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, the question begs to be asked; Why should we give a damn about the Olympics?
I guess on some level it’s nice that some stranger we have never met can run or swim or jump faster than 10 other strangers who we have also never met. But why does that really matter in any way to our lives such that it is worthy of our time or emotional investment?
There are clearly so many more important and meaningful things going on in the world that we should devote our attention to rather than focus on a bunch of athletes who have gotten together in Brazil to play some games.
Besides, what does it even mean that these competitors are “representing” our country? In what consequential way do they represent the people whose national flag adorns their glitzy outfits, rather than simply contending for their own personal glory?
Also, what happened to the “purity of sport” that the Games are supposed to embody? The Olympics have always touted themselves as a social movement – not just a sporting event – the purpose of which is the betterment of mankind. As author Ian Ritchie noted in 2014, “Crucial to the success of the movement has been the image of Olympic sport as ‘pure’ and that the International Olympic Committee is representing sports’ ‘spirit’ in an unadulterated form beyond political, economic or social affairs.”
However, these days those lofty ideals seem laughable when mentioned in reference to the IOC and Olympic Games. Between millionaire professional athletes taking over the top events, major doping and corruption scandals left and right, big-money sponsors and television networks dictating the landscape and – the latest twist – Las Vegas sports-books taking bets on the Games for the first time since the practice was forbidden in 2001, it feels as if the purity-of-sports ship has sailed far away long ago.
Indeed, the modern Olympic movement is more of a struggle to balance its soul with survival, sacrificing innocent exuberance for greed and the core values of competition for neatly packaged, Tweetable entertainment.
And yet, for three weeks every four years (even two, depending on your affinity for the Winter Olympics) millions of eyes are pasted to screens in more than 200 countries around the world to root for their nations’ sportsmen and sportswomen. The London Games in 2012 garnered 217 million American viewers alone for NBC, making it the most-watched event in US television history. Half a million tourists are expected in Rio, despite the rampant fears surrounding safety, cleanliness and sickness. And these Games have already generated more than $4 billion in global advertising sales by companies that are nothing if not savvy at predicting who will be tuning in to watch what.
So it really isn’t a question of “Who cares?” Obviously quite a few people do. The real question is WHY?
To approach this question, we can start by examining the things in life that unquestionably “matter” – health, family and friends, morality, security, God (to some), finances, and I’m sure there are a number of others that can be included.
But what about the rest of life? Clearly, there are some gaps to fill in.
In a hypothetical sense, what would we do with all the health, family and friends and money we could handle? Sit around and just talk about health and family and friends and morality and security, and maybe God? That doesn’t sound very enjoyable at all.
So, organically, all human beings embrace interests that allow them to appreciate what the world has to offer in a manner that resonates with them, allow them to connect with other like-minded individuals and, most importantly, that they enjoy, either by themselves or with people they love.
Whether it’s music, food, performing arts, video games, painting, puzzles or sports – among many others – these are the passionate endeavors that complete the picture, that connect the dots and provide the vibrant colors in the complex tapestry of life.
Are these things essential for survival? Not necessarily. But could we live without them? Who would ever want to find out?
Once we can establish that there is room in our all-so-serious lives for recreational activities – in whatever form one chooses – it follows that there would be an interest in experiencing or observing the people that perform these same activities that we so enjoy at the most advanced level possible.
As such, the crème-de-la-crème in any domain of life captivate our imaginations and command our respect. From the best chefs in the world, to the best actors, musicians, artists, writers, scientists, scholars and of course athletes, the feats and accomplishments of these elite few are appreciated, celebrated and fawned over. And deservingly so, for it is their daring exploits that fuel our childhood (and even adulthood) dreams, and it is only those true rarest-of-rare talents that leave such an everlasting imprint.
Furthermore, if the explosion of reality television has taught as anything (anything at all), it’s that there is an insatiable appetite for witnessing genuine, unscripted drama being played out on the grandest of stages.
The Olympics are the first – and still greatest – reality TV show ever created, and it should come as no wonder that the world stops to watch.
As any sports enthusiast can attest to, there is a “where was I when…” aspect to being a fan that can make a single moment last a lifetime. Recounting a particular memory – whether a game, a competition, or even a feeling evoked – can, interestingly enough, be almost as satisfying and vivid as the actual event itself.
Naturally, as time passes, the details of the individual achievements from these Olympic Games will blur in our minds and mesh with the millions of other unbelievable sporting moments that we have witnessed throughout our lives.
What will always remain clear as day, however, is the fact that sports have this unfathomable power to transcend time and especially place and regularly touch something deep in our souls.
It’s true, we may not feel a personal connection to the members of the Israeli delegation or the other athletes we will watch perform. But, contrasted with harshness and bleakness that tends to envelop the rest of the world, part of the beauty of sports is that it doesn’t (generally) conjure up life-and-death issues and can just be enjoyed meaninglessly and without any greater consequence than the friendly rivalry and the fun the competition arouses.
Moreover, as much as anything else in the world, international sports has consistently demonstrated a uniquely unifying force, one with the capacity to bring together hundreds of nations and millions of countrymen.
At the very least, the Olympics cause us all to reflect upon our national identity. Whether or not the athletes themselves are representative of their countries’ collective interests is almost besides the point.
Sport also provides society with a neutral platform to accept the concepts of “sportsmanship” and “teamwork” and their ability to triumph over conflicts of all magnitudes.
When looking at the Olympics – and sports in general – and their appropriate place of priority in the big picture, no one would argue that one should care about their favorite athlete or team more than their family, more than their health or more than any of a host of issues that are obviously of far greater importance.
However, that does not have to minimize the value that these pursuits do provide, of which there is plenty. In a world that breeds cynicism, it is often easy to miss those rare instants of brightness, or optimism.
Sports produce these uplifting moments in spades. At their foundation, the Olympics are about overcoming obstacles and fulfilling dreams, and these are lessons that can apply to any person in the world. Every one of the 10,500 athletes in Rio has fought through the most improbable of odds to reach the pinnacle of their discipline (not to mention the incomprehensible challenges that the 4,500 Paralympians face on a daily basis).
Regardless of whether we are in a swimming pool, on a track or in any walk of life, there is always an opportunity to face fears or limiting circumstances and find a way to power through and conquer. The satisfaction of doing so is incomparable and truly strengthens us as individuals.
Nothing illustrates that notion more concretely than the Olympics, showcasing the power of the human will and the human body in a Wizard of Oz-like ménage-à-trois of heart, brains, courage…along with boatloads of talent.
Inspiration, dedication, respect and excellence are all core values exemplified through the Olympics, and are such alluring principles that they draw us all in.
With all that in mind, here’s a little experiment for you at home: Try watching even a few minutes of Israel’s delegation marching at the Opening Ceremony in Rio on August 5, see Michael Phelps in the pool for one last race, try to catch a glimpse of Usain Bolt on the track as he goes for his third straight Olympic triple-gold, or tune in for any random event final and the awarding of the medals.
If you can make it through that without any lump-in-your-throat moments, without any tears in your eyes and without feeling any sense of awe or inspiration at the possibilities the world has to offer, then I give up – and suggest you and Dorothy pay a visit to Oz to ask the Wizard for a heart.