Why We Watch

Before Ladysmith. Before Kitty Hawk. Before the Model T. Before World War One and Two and the splitting of the atom and television and a man on the moon and the internet and a man-made object leaving our solar system — there were the games of the first modern Olympiad. Forty-three events. Fourteen nations. No blacks, no women, no Irish need apply. Jumping and leaping and running and thrusting for medals and applause.

And even assuming that our great great grandparents were incredibly starved for anything even remotely approximating entertainment, why do we watch?

Because these are not the Baron de Coubertin’s democratic amateurs. And even if they were, who cares? What do we have vested in people we have never heard of, and of whom we will be hard pressed to recall in two years time, doing things we never give a second thought to? Because of history? Because of legacy? Surely not. So many things that seemed like a good idea at the time have failed to endure. The League of Nations for example. Esperanto. Bellbottoms. Supertrain.

And yet the Olympics. Why? Why do we watch?

We watch for effort. We live lives of routine and if not the quiet desperation that Thoreau so eloquently described, then mediocrity and mendacity. We sleepwalk through our days and nights and weeks and months, kidding ourselves that our tweets and posts and snaps are marking our time here. But we know they’re not. And our feeble actions only serve to remind us how much we long for real effort. Real endeavor. Real fearless passion in the face of struggle.

And we see that in the Olympics. We see people we don’t know, from places we can’t identify doing things we don’t understand. And yet we do understand their commitment. Their willingness to risk all. We watch them fail. We are amazed when they fail. Because we live in an era of such ample plastic success. Perfect recordings. Perfect photographs. Perfect skin and hair and clothes and jokes and performances. And we see them fail and we remember that they are human. And somehow that reminds us that we are too.

So we watch to connect with our own humanity. For those moments that knock down the walls that we have constructed to endure our daily stupidity. To see real humans struggle and strive. To hear stories of their struggles that we can’t imagine. And not only the struggles of nationals in places and levels of poverty we literally can’t conceive of, but of people who gave up all the things that we have punctuated our lives with in order to make this trip. Weddings. Graduations. Family. Friends. Look around you. Who would you forsake for the chance to fail in front of the world. Everyone and everything you know?

We watch people from places we’ve never heard of. We watch people from places we have — Texas, Florida, New York, California — people who look like the kids in your kids’ high school, like the kid who ran the cash register at the grocery store yesterday, who checked you in at the Apple Store. We watch to see them, people we think we’re like, do things we can’t imagine. We even watch when they say things we don’t agree with. We watch for the humanity — to see people we don’t agree with do things that thrill us, to remind ourselves in this volatile and heated season that we can disagree and still connect.

We watch not in spite of the history of lying and cheating and doping and racism and mendacity and hate, but, in a sense, because of it. Because of Avery Brundage and Ben Johnson and 11 Israelis and Centennial Park as much as Jesse Owens and John Carlos and Olga Korbut and Michael Phelps. We watch because in spite of all of that and our casual clever cynicism, we love the holy purity of surprise. We love to see Simone Manuel’s face when she discovers she’s won, Michael Johnson’s face when he set a world record, a North Korean and South Korean gymnast in a selfie.

We watch because there is nothing like it and because in the sterile orchestrated, pre-fabricated spreadsheets of our lives we are drawn to the absurd, archaic, antiquity of it. So we bend the better angels of our 19th century nature to those of our 21st and struggle to maintain the recognizable dream. A dream of effort. A dream of failure. A dream of humanity. A dream of connection.

So we watch.