Sarita Sarvate

Jingoism Dominates Olympics

Sep 04, 2008

India Currents

BY SARITA SARVATE

SARITA SARVATE, Sep 04, 2008

Every four years, I look forward to the Olympics. I love to watch individuals struggling to achieve excellence; I like to see a javelin throw, an equestrian jump. I love to hear the rubber of a bicycle’s tires hit the road, the legs of a track athlete flashing past the pavement, the arms of rowers moving in ballet-like synchrony. I long to see long jumpers achieve distances I couldn’t even dream of.

Alas, all I am stuck with instead as usual is Bela Karolyi and his supersized ego, which, let’s face it, is big enough to fill the Bird’s Nest, aka the Beijing Olympic Stadium.

Watching the games, you cannot know that we are living in a globalized world, or that the census expects that by 2042, minorities will be the majority in the United States, or that California switched over to this new demographic years ago.

The impression of the United States that you get from the fleeting images of swimmers and gymnasts is just the opposite: that America is a sort of a white-bread, suburban land where valley girls live.

To vie with American patriotism and parochialism, every other country is imitating some of its worst characteristics.

So it was that the Chinese went over the top with their opening ceremony, which had so many outlandish acts that it put me into the kind of deep stupor I have not experienced since I stopped watching Mary Hart, the host of Entertainment Tonight, in the 1980s.

Afterward, I couldn’t help wondering: Was that really necessary? What happened to simplicity, elegance, understatement?

Remember the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics? Remember that dreamy fantasy of a deep sea journey? That’s what I call art.

What the Beijing opening ceremony had instead was pomp spelled with a capital P, so that you couldn’t help wondering if all of China’s 1.3 billion people were on stage at the same time prancing atop that digitally mobile floor.

As if the country wanted to rub our noses in the fact that we are currently living off the fruit of its labors. Or that it is as technologically advanced as the movies studios of Pixar or Disney.

China’s efforts seemed hilarious to me until I discovered that the country’s best dancer was paralyzed for life from the failure of its technological exploits during the rehearsals prior to the ceremony.

This sad saga, like everything else in the world today, can be blamed on the legacy of colonization. After all, it was just another “third world” country trying to impress the first world, right? As if we could not make our own rules or decide what is aesthetic and what is not. Or figure out what the tone of the Olympics should be in the new century.

If this was an opportunity for an Asian country to change the rules of the game, China certainly missed its chance.

What the opening ceremony reminded me of instead was the time when Mother Theresa died. Her death, on the heels of Princess Diana’s death, tempted us Indians to create some sort of extravaganza like that in Westminster Abbey. The result was that the ceremony, too, organized with not a hair out of place, ended up being totally scripted and un-Indian to the point where one longed for a moment of chaos, of disharmony and discord and noise and hustle and bustle which pervades even the solemnest ceremony in India. Which raises the question: are we all so brainwashed that we are afraid to be ourselves?

I watched the 1984 winter and summer Olympics while living in New Zealand. And what a treat that was. NZTV broadcast them sans commercials—the way they should be aired so as to give a fair representation of the variety and range of sports and athletic activities underway, as well as the different nationalities present, and with little regard to whether the New Zealanders were winning or even competing.

Watching Bob Costa and his blinders-wearing narrators, you get the impression that there are only two events happening in the village and that the only athletes there are Americans.

Can NBC, which is getting to use our airwaves for free, not even take the trouble to have a few cameras hoisted atop other arenas to bring us a fleeting glimpse of an archer stringing an arrow or a fencer advancing with an epee or a sailor raising the mast or an athlete speeding from one leg of a triathlon to the next? Instead, the network dwells on excruciatingly painful minutiae related to the quarter and semi finals of women’s beach volleyball, which are obviously aired because of the contestants’ scanty uniforms, ironically reminiscent of the swim suit issue of Sports Illustrated which always sells the most copies.

Form, over the years, has become so much more important than substance. The Olympics broadcasts are so frequently interspersed with syrupy slow-mo interludes focusing on American heroics that one doesn’t even know where the commercials end and the programs begin.

I am so jaded by the jingoism that pervades the Olympics that I hardly took notice when an Indian won the country’s first individual gold medal in shooting. Frankly, I don’t care if Indians do well or not. After all, we can boast of some of the world’s best writers, leaders, musicians, thinkers, engineers, yogis, gurus, and entrepreneurs, so why bother with this competition which is increasingly becoming more about money, hormones, and doping and less about the struggle for excellence?

Still, I can’t help dream of a place, somewhere in the world, where the games are shown in their full splendor, without the bias of a Bob Costa or a Bela Karolyi, so as to give us a feel for the whole range of athletics and sports around the world today.

Iceland, maybe?