I have loathed the Olympics for my entire life. At least there are a hundred other channels now, piles of DVDs, and Netflix these days. Those dark days in the past have receded, when one of the networks would shutdown for weeks in order to breathlessly flood our lives with ice twirling. I am convinced now that not having cable during those times of my childhood was child abuse by foul.
My first exposure to the Olympics was with the original Dream Team, when Michael Jordan and his buddies got together and savaged random pick up teams from the rest of the world while America blew its collective load over just how awesome we were. There were of course the arguments that this was a demonstration of why the Olympics were supposed to be about amateurs and not professionals. But watching amateurs is about as exciting as watching the College World Series, where we watch all the athletes who weren’t good enough to be professional. Congratulations, here’s your trophy for participating. And if we make it all professional, we’ve just engineered our way back to the professional sports leagues that already exist.
It’s been a tradition for over two thousand years, they insist. The worst to me personally are those who insist that this tenuous tie to history means that I should implicitly care about the Olympics. I’m not sure what seventeen different diving competitions really have to do with the tradition of oil-dipped nude Greeks wrestling each other in between bouts of underage buggery, but here we are anyway.
The proliferation of events for the sake of events makes my ears fashion shivs and stab out their own ear drums. Just listening to a list of swimming and track events is like listening to Bubba talk about shrimp. So when I see the orgasmic delight of talking heads telling me that this is unprecedented, that this swimmer just won his 17th gold medal, I’m more impressed that someone came up with seventeen different ways to swim across a damned pool. I’m sure there are small strategic differences between the myriad of indistinguishable events, but then explain to me why the baseball players don’t get separate medals for hitting seven different sorts of pitches, running to four entirely different bases, correctly identifying balls and strikes, catching ground balls and fly balls, blowing the biggest bubble, spitting the sunflower seeds most precisely, and scratching each nut individually and with team synchronization.
It’s the false earnestness I hate the most though, the endless little vignettes about how little Jimmy overcame being born in the first world to fulfill his dream of running in circles. Oh but not the hundred meter circles, we mean the two hundred meter circles. For the one hundred meter circles we will instead be talking in awestruck tones about this kid whose name you can’t pronounce from a country you’ve never heard of. His entire extended family was massacred by warlords, but don’t you know that his grandmother’s dying words were “keep running.” Back to you Tom, this heartwarming story has been brought to you by Pepsi.
And I should say that I don’t begrudge the athletes, or mock them in the least. They work their asses off trying to do what they do better than anyone else in the world. That is humanity at its most fantastic. But the Olympics as a product, as a thing that a network spends a billion dollars packaging into something to sell ad space, that’s the tip of what’s objectionable. The fact that people buy it up is what is most upsetting. Those people who are so excited to tell you about how they watched the triple-dodeca-running-thon last night and the boy who raised three blind cats won and isn’t it just so exciting? They couldn’t tell you where a track is in their hometown. They couldn’t tell you if their local high school’s track team got shut down because the money ran out. Those people who latch onto some human interest story attached to an obscure sport and pretend that they’re a fan and not just a vampiric consumer of emotional porn.
Sports aren’t about winning, they’re about losing. When your team wins, it’s glorious not because you heard some Readers Digest story about their lives, but because you have weathered their losing. And for every time you’ve screamed in wonder as the replay shows that two toes brushed the turf as time expired, there are a dozen times you’ve watched them fall short. Being a fan is pain, it’s taking on the agony of the losing side so that someday you will get the joy of the other. And every time our team wins, we know that someone else is suffering how we have suffered. The only joy is on the backs of others’ losses, not because we’re zero sum sadists, but because the agony of losing is the gift we give to the winners. Except the Yankees, because fuck them.
For viewers of the Olympics, this is lost, for they are nothing but fair weather fans jumping on the bandwagon of whoever the talking head tells us has the most inspiring story. And if their long jump falls short of the next guy who the network neglected to do a puff piece on, well now let’s flip to the semi-finals of women’s curling. There’s no investment of emotion, just hit after hit of cheap stolen joy, never feeling the depth of the losses because there’s always another winner to move on to. And those fleeting little triumphs don’t last longer than the next commercial break because they were never earned. Watching the Olympics is like a succession of one night stands, each blurring into the next, little spurts of enjoyment but none of the deep joy that is grudgingly yielded by years of devotion.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.