And The Winner Is…

No, I’m not giving awards, but commenting on the social implications of the recent Winter Olympics. Put bluntly, there’s something really wrong with the world when a national psyche, such as Canada’s, rests on the outcome of a hockey game. Did this athletic contest produce a cure for cancer, a new space drive that will allow us access to the planets, or a way to effectively deal with terrorism? For that matter, did any of the Olympic contests really determine the best athletes in any given endeavor? No, they did not. They determined who was the best on a given day. One could even claim that the U.S.was the better hockey team since the two teams split contests and overall the USA scored more goals. But Canada’s national psyche was “saved” because one game was somehow more important than another game. A game! So be it… sadly.

And, by the way, when did games and viewing them become so important? Has it ever happened before in history? Several times, as a matter of fact — in ancient Greece, before its civilization collapsed, in Rome, after the fall of the Republic, and in Central America, before the Mayan civilization became too weak to survive environmental catastrophe. There might be other examples, as well, but those spring to mind immediately.

More to the immediate point, the Winter Games — and the television hoopla surrounding them — trivialized the lives of everyday people everywhere. A skater was praised for competing and winning a bronze medal in the days following her mother’s death. Yes, she was courageous, but how many people, every day, have to go with their lives after a loved one dies unexpectedly? Several other athletes were lauded for overcoming difficulties in order to triumph in their fields, and the media played it up as if they were the only ones who had ever done so. I don’t recall any media hoopla or medals for my wife when she had to sing a full concert while her mother was dying, in order to keep her job, nor do I recall any great praise for the student who had to do a singing competition after surviving a car crash and a broken shoulder and the death of a beloved aunt. And there seemed to be a great deal of concern over whether Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series would be finished, which concern and commentary lasted far longer than the brief praises of his career at the time of his unfortunate death.

There was a note that the coverage of the Winter Olympics actually outpolled American Idol in terms of viewers. Why should this have been any surprise? They’re different sides of the same coin. Both reward a performance of the moment, not necessarily sustained excellence, and both performances, frankly, have little to do with improving the human condition, except for momentarily making those watching feel better. I’m not taking anything away from the athletes; they’ve worked long and hard to achieve excellence in their fields. But to showcase such performances and to surround them with such hype… what does that say about our society?

Now, before anyone jumps to conclusions that I’m just a geeky science fiction and fantasy writer who has no understanding and appreciation of sports, I will point out that, for better or worse, I was one of those athletes. In addition of lettering in high school sports, I was a competitive swimmer for fifteen years, all the way through college, and although I was just a touch too slow to be Olympic caliber, I do know what it takes to succeed first hand. I’m not against sports; I’m against the glorification of the spectator side of sports, against glitz overwhelming true achievement, and against the creation of an image where sports achievement is blown totally out of proportion to solid values in life.

We live in a world where American Idol far outdraws opera, yet opera is far more demanding and technically superior. Where stock car drivers make thousands of times what those other drivers — such as truckers and highway patrol officers — do. Where graphic novels sell far more than books that actually make readers think in depth. Where the glitz and financial manipulations of Wall Street quants and financiers draw rewards hundreds of thousands of times greater than the salaries of those who police our streets, fight our fires, and educate our children.

History won’t remember American Idol, nor the winners of Olympic Games. If history is even read by the coming generations, it might list Shakespeare, Edison, Washington, Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Pasteur, and Einstein, among others who made real accomplishments.

What did the Winter Olympics say about us as a society? That the winner is… those with the greatest ability to entertain and dazzle, rather than those who provide us with solid achievements?

5 thoughts on “And The Winner Is…”

  1. Nate says:

    There is a great deal of truth to what you say, and I agree with most of your points. But I think that you are neglecting one of the purposes of the Olympics. The human brain is one that developed over tens of thousands of years and the instinct for tribal competitiveness is strong in humans. One of the things the Olympics has done over the years is provided an alternative outlet for these impulses. Is it not better to have the Olympics, with all the attendant nonsense, than to allow these pressures push countries into more violent pursuits, like war?

    Like you I wish that we could put such instincts firmly behind us, but we haven't yet.

  2. A. Shelton says:

    We have the Olympics, yet we still start wars.

    Or had that escaped your attention?

    It is not competitiveness that starts wars. It's greed.

  3. Steve Ravine says:

    Ironically enough I had to drive into downtown Toronto Sunday night and it was unreal. It took me over 20 minutes to go half a mile down Yonge St due to the celebrations going on. Being an American I got lots of jeers, but honestly I didn't care as I'm not a hockey fan. People were acting like idiots in the streets and I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't a higher than average number of pedestrian accidents sadly.

    As I sat there stuck in traffic, I had much the same thoughts as you did. How did your watching the game on TV affect the outcome of the game? It's great to feel pride in your country, but shouldn't it be due to more important things? That said, Canada is a great country as I've spent 2 of the last 6 months working there and the people are incredibly nice. Many Americans could learn something from our neighbors to the north.

    In response to A. Shelton – isn't the Olympics a war fought on a different battlefield to determine which country has the best athletes? Of the billions spent for the games, how much was due to corporate greed? It doesn't matter if it's the Olympics, wars or Wall Street – there are a number of humans who will use any means available to reach their goal whether it's ethical or not. Until we can can provide a system where the rewards are based on the means more than the ends, this behavior will unfortunately continue.

  4. Joshua Blonski says:

    You know Steve, often times when visiting Canada I have experienced some good things too, but no more or less than when I'm in any other given location. However I did notice (when I used to live in Buffalo, just south of the border) a lot of people from Toronto and other places in Ontario were actually very rude to us in Buffalo. And that's kind of an interesting switch of presented face.

    Over years, I have also noticed that a pretty sizable chunk of Canadian identity isn't "Canadian" so much as it's "Anti-American" and that's been a fairly disheartening thing to see. No matter who you are, you shouldn't be basing your identity on anti-others. Beyond that, no matter who you are, you didn't choose to be born where you were. And it's that kind of blind pride and nationalism that I don't agree with. It's a pretty pervasive feeling among a lot of Canadians that they are better simply because of where they were born versus people in the U.S., and the funny thing is that's the sort of arrogance we get lambasted for.

    When it's all said and done, I've spent quite a lot of time in and living next to Canada. I've seen a lot. Our overall systems are not that different. They have pervasive racism. They have corrupt governments and political problems up the wazoo. They have issues in their educational system. They have areas of rampant drug abuse problems. And they have big egos. Really, there isn't a whole lot of problems that we have that they don't share (Stephen Harper, anyone? And we get finger-wagged at for our elected officials). The big difference is that they're not in the spotlight as much. They're not as boisterous about it, and so it's a bit better hidden. It's annoying when we get jabbed over things that aren't exclusive to our own country, or when I am personally insulted because my country did something I have no personal control over. It's that kind of pompous hypocrisy that annoys me. It doesn't come from everyone, but it comes from a lot. Quite often I've witnessed first hand more anti-American sentiment among Canadians that I have seen anti-anyone-else sentiment among Americans. It's part of the culture up there, and it's so wasteful and negative.

    The general talk I heard concerning the Olympics has been reminiscent of rival high school sports teams, and that's sad. The Olympics are supposed to be a time of coming together to take pride in athletic accomplishments from around the world. These games aren't supposed to be a forum for division and condemnation.

    As far as hockey goes, the NHL has a much better grip on things. As Mr. Modesitt has said, one game doesn't prove who is better. In football, it's the rule of "Any Given Sunday." At least in the NHL they have a best-of-seven-games competition to decide winners. And the Stanley Cup is taken from the previous champion team to be given to the new winners, which supports even more the idea that winning in the sport is transitory. But beyond that, if you're seriously saying things like, "I'm going to have a nervous breakdown if we lose," (or worse, that ending with "to the Americans") and it's not because you invested your house's equity in a Vegas bet on the game, your head's in the wrong place and you have no business in games and sports. I enjoyed the games for what they were. It's a shame a country has to make a spectacle of itself because it can't do the same.

  5. Nate says:

    To A. Shelton.

    I acknowledge your point, but during the cold war the United States and Russia never directly fought each other. One of the intermediaries that was used was the Olympics. I would far rather put time and effort into winning the Olympics than having to fight another Vietnam or Afghanistan (I mean the Russian war there).

    There are many causes for war, one is greed. But one other cause is ideological differences. And that is another form of tribal competitiveness: us vs. them.

Comments are closed.