Monday, February 13, 2006

Are We Too Cool for the Olympics?

When I heard the news that the ratings for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics were only half of what they were a mere four years ago, I was not surprised. These Olympics have crept upon us with seemingly no fanfare, little publicity and even less joy or excitement about them. I heard no one speak about the Olympics until they had already begun, and whereas “America Idol,” “Friends,” or “Oscar” parties are commonplace, I have heard of no such parties for viewing the Olympics. Not that my experience is a great barometer, but the lax approach to the games seems widespread. So I have to ask, are we too cool for the Olympics? Why have they ceased to have much meaning for us anymore?

Ceremonies of that nature have never appealed to me, so I didn’t watch four years ago or this year. The importance of ritual for all meaningful acts was reinforced, though, so I appreciate Christian rituals all the more. I do enjoy the games, however, and I have watched some of the competition even though I don’t have cable and Peacock barely comes in on my television. But where I live, I have noticed the older generations paying more attention to these Olympics than anyone else. It seems that a few things have changed since the Olympics last mattered: culture became skeptical about patriotism, professional sports events like the Super Bowl have supplanted less common sports seen in the Olympics, and the splendor of it all has been reduced by personal luxuries like leisure and travel.

Patriotism is seen as an old-fashioned value for the na├»ve at heart. Loyalty to country is less important than loyalty to self, and sacrifice is no longer a pressing demand from the American government (with the exception of high taxes). There are no drafts, there are no moon walks, there is no great moment our nation needs to gather around because even the greatest of our achievements (spreading democracy in the Middle East) can be done with but a portion of the population at minimized loss. But because doubt about the greatness of America has crept into the subconscious of her citizens through lunatic professors and a media that seems to have disdain for the US, there seems to be less joy about our sons and daughters competing against the world’s best. But what a tragic day when we have the luxury of caring less about our great land! While we may be in a malaise about our precious athletes, make no mistake in thinking that every other nation does not want to beat us, because they are hungry for a victory over the good ol’ USA.

Perhaps it isn’t all our fault, though. The three major sports leagues in America (NFL, MLB, NBA) have done such a wonderful job of marketing their sports that we are more proud when our Cubs, Mavericks or Saints win than when the US wins. And for those of us who actually like the NBA, we notice that some of the greatest players in the league come from Bosnia, Germany or Brazil, and this alone diminishes the unique appeal of the Olympics. Like everything else, professional sports has become globalized to the point where the novelty of seeing people from other countries is nothing new. Consequentially, the Olympics has lost some of its mystique, glamour and charm. But more than that, there just isn’t enough money to be made on the Olympics anymore. Endorsement deals for athletes that get face-time every 4 years isn’t sensible to shoe and credit card companies. Nike will take a McNabb who quarterbacks 17 days a year or a LeBron who dunks 82 nights a year over a downhill slalom skier who is seen 1/100th of the time any day of the week.

Finally, as the world grows richer, travel and leisure are a staple of yearly life for many of us. Traveling to once exotic destinations as Athens, Salt Lack City or Turin is a charge on the credit card, a call to a travel agent and maybe an adjustment on our timeshare. The Olympics can no longer be situated in any place that is thought of as too “far away,” or a distant corner of the world worth learning about and appreciating. It’s all within our grasp; the world has grown much smaller, and the sentiment associated with the Olympics has suffered.

I just finished watching the documentary “From the Earth to the Moon,” and I was struck at how little people cared about Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. Of course Apollo 11 was Neil Armstrong’s giant leap and 13 was a disaster unlike anything anyone had seen. But all the other trips to the moon were largely ignored, even though the most interesting finds were made and the feat no less impressive. These Olympics are also impressive, and these athletes worthy of our attention, if not just for their physical prowess, but also because they in fact represent America. Lest we forget, this is a special place countless millions in the world give anything to live in. We should cheer on our ambassadors, and laud them for their achievements.

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