I have Olympic fever, and I am not ashamed to admit it. It’s a devastating disease- I have been known to turn down meeting with friends in order to watch the Games- and yet one that I have no intention of curing.
The Olympics are fascinating to me for many reasons, including the fact that I am freakishly competitive. I also love sports, and men without shirts. But most of all, I love the idea that countries, sometimes in the middle of civil wars, governmental instability, and more, can come together and compete. I love that (almost) every nation (and Puerto Rico!) is represented, and that athletes have a uncanny ability to make their fellow countrypeople proud.
Or at least this is the effect the Olympics have on me. On Tuesday night I watched Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak, and the rest of the men’s 4 x 100 freestyle swim team pull off a truly miraculous come-from-behind gold medal win. On the inside I was screaming, jumping up and down, and waving an enormous American flag at the top of the Statue of Liberty- even if on the outside I only was sitting on my couch, cursing and yelling at a TV screen. Last night, I was living and dying by the U.S. men’s gymnastics team’s pommel horse performances. Despite the fact that I don’t know any of these athletes, at the Olympics I watch them with the same nerve and emotional attachment as I would a family member.
Meanwhile, outside of the frantic Beijing bubble, China continues to commit serious human rights abuses in places like Tibet, and fund them in Darfur. Even inside it, they have blocked foreign journalists’ access to websites including those belonging to Amnesty International and controversial religious group Falun Gong.
It’s a stark contrast. The Olympics bring us stories like this, the real world, this. But China will be disappointed to know that the Olympics do not exist to cover up, or even overshadow, international stories. The spectacular Opening Ceremony will not mean that China can escape some responsibility for the atrocities in Darfur, and, although coverage has been waning over the last few days, people will not forget about Tibet. Rather, these stories are approached in a different way at the Olympics. Through the Olympics we come to appreciate the power of the truly amazing men and women around the world that we would otherwise not know existed. Through the Olympics we see past the showboating and chest-puffing of governments and bear witness to the vulnerability of our fellow human beings- and nothing makes us more united.
International relations-from the UN to NATO, from China to the US to Darfur- at its core, is glorified group therapy. A former diplomat that I once heard speak described how he once was in the middle of a really difficult negotiation session: the two parties just could not agree, could not even find common ground- everyone was tired and ready to give up. Then they brought out the alcohol. People began to talk about their families. They came out of their emotionless, suit-and-tie shells and began to loosen up. They even began to sing. The result was that an agreement was reached, and each person left understanding that maybe the “foreigners” were not so foreign after all.
That’s what the Olympics do. They take away the boundaries, each country’s own Great Wall, if you will. One can only imagine how much better off the world would be if the negotiations were conducted by people willing to set themselves up for failure- or victory- as much as Olympic athletes. Maybe we’d see a little less war and a little more of this.