Olympic Dreams

Jacques Ellul once said that once a movement becomes an institution, it’s dead. He was talking about the dangers of locking faith up in a bureaucratic, self-preserving power structure, but I think his words have a ring to them when you think about the Olympics and other “amateur” sports organizations (ahem, NCAA anything).

There’s a charm to the idea of the Olympics–competitors from around the world gathering every few years to compete at games and showcase all the crazy and amazing things the human body can do. I mean, I mostly hate figure skating, but it’s still amazing that people can strap knife blades to their feet and zip around the ice jumping and spinning without breaking an ankle or cracking their skull open. (It’s all the arm waving and dancy fingers that lose me). And there’s the second-hand exhilaration watching a skier go airborn as they fly down a mountain right on the edge of disaster (not to mention the ugly thrill when someone crosses that border in a tumbling heap).

That’s the legend of the Olympics. The reality is a little less satisfying. The Olympics™ has become an ultra-competitive business. There’s the IOC, plagued with accusations of graft as less-than-reputable nations grease the wheels of the bidding system to get that legitimizing feather in the cap of Western media descending and fawning over their culture and turning a collective blind eye to whatever doesn’t fit the feel-good narrative packaged for the viewers back home. Then there’s weird decisions like barring the French skiing team from putting a small sticker on their helmets to honor their friend who died in training while over on the snowboard slopes, brand names and logos festoon the bottom of every board.

Then there are the athletes. The number of stories I’ve heard of athletes changing their citizenship to whichever country will give them the Olympic stage has been disenchanting to say the least. And what of the apparently high socioeconomic bar for Olympic athletes? How many athletes will we never see because they don’t have the money to build a ski slope in their back yard and they don’t have access to wind tunnel training to improve their aerodynamics and they don’t have someone to drive the 5 hours into the mountains for private training on the regular and they don’t have access to the array of nutritionists and trainers and balance coaches and personal sports psychologists and myriad other personnel that spread in the wake of elite athletes like the human train of an immense veil?

And this, I think, is Ellul’s point. The Olympics started as a movement, but the whiff of glory and, more alluringly, dollars has attracted a crippling amount of interests. Maybe this is simply the curse of human endeavor–every good thing eventually attracts the appetites that will crush it. And maybe this is the blessing of the human spirit–ever inventive enough to devise new good things that have not been discovered and mined yet. Sitting in front of whatever coverage NBC decides I’d find most attractive, I find the Olympic myth harder to see in the Olympic machine. It feels like time for a fresh movement. I wonder where the new thing will come from.

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In honor of the ragged Olympic spirit, here’s Pearl Jam at their most puerile offering their own thoughts on the ’96 Atlanta games.

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