Do the Olympics still matter?

AUGUST 6TH, 2016 — POST 215

I still remember one of the first times we were required to give a speech in school. It would have been in Year 2 or 3, us kids 7 or 8 years old, in 1999 or 2000. There was a list of suggested topics and one in particular has stuck with me: something along the lines of “Sport: Breaking down barriers”. In Sydney, the city that was to host the 2000 Olympics, the biggest city in a country that had a national pride around sporting performance, I don’t think many of us could get our heads around the key part of the suggested topic — what “barriers” was sport supposed to be breaking down?

That the world even has barriers is a hard concept for kids of that age to even really get their heads around. I think I had some sense that picking this topic would mean giving a speech all about breaking world records and the athletes that had done it. But then our teachers started to talk about things like race and small countries and I think we began to understand. Seeing Cathy Freeman win gold in the 400m (even in that ridiculous suit), and bearing witness to the lashings of “such an important achievement” and “Aussie hero” that news anchors drizzled across radio and TV in the weeks following her victory, certainly helped us as well.

Sport is an old-world method of shrinking the world, and the Olympics probably has historically shrunk the world the most. There’s always some Canadian archer, a Cuban wrestler, a Czech discus thrower that grabs the attention of a foreign crowd — not just those lining the stands but those millions watching on screens the world over. The last few Olympics have seen that charismatic Jamaican sprinter have everyone outside of Jamaica wanting to see him win as much as possible — even with representatives of their own nations invariably having to lose in the process. Nations whose economic footprint and populations often have them overlooked just might take the gold medal.

But the 21st Century has already been characterised by another more present, more pressing force by which the world has shrunk. The globalising powers of trade and media that churned through the second half of the 20th Century hit overdrive with the internet and the explosion in internet-supported devices and services. The charismatic Jamaican sprinter of the 21st Century is on Twitter and wears Nike trainers. The every-few-years Olympic few-weeks no longer feel as if they strip away barriers but rather simply pass through a film that is semi-permeable and increasingly dissolving.

The democratisation of connectivity through cheap and easily disseminated devices not only has proven itself more potent than sport in shrinking the world but actively turns on the sporting events that once served as a global lubricant. Sochi’s winter games were marred by charges of homophobia heaved at the Russian government, shared across social media. The Poland-Ukraine Euro 2012 produced viral videos of race hate and racial violence. And Rio is looking like a fucking shit show. As Jason Gray wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week:

“In the 21st Century, the Olympic myth has been busted.”

The barriers that we at 7 or 8 were told sport could break down — perhaps a hangover from Cold War era ideas of Iron Curtains — are just not there anymore. Instead, we are able to see every corner of the world for what it is. In place of barriers, we see chasms — chasms of injustice, poverty, and corruption. The internet shrunk the world totally, so much so that the murder of black men by police or the attempted Turkish coup can feel right upon anyone with an internet connection. Where the Olympics might once have sated the world with symbols of progress — raised black fists or a black man winning in Hitler’s own Berlin — we are now privy to a world where symbols just aren’t enough.

Thank you for listening to my speech.

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