Playing Through

A look into the darker side of the Olympic Games

Playing Through
Illustration by Craig Staggs

I can be sentimentally moved by a wet T-shirt contest, so when it comes to the pomp and circumstance of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony – forget about it. Seeing all those proud and handsome young men and women parading into the Beijing National Stadium in their colorful national haberdashery, I feel a welling of warmth for all of humanity.

How cute is that, I think – 7-foot-6-inch Yao Ming marching side by side with that adorable little 9-year-old earthquake kid! Even a grade-A asshole like Kobe Bryant suddenly seems altogether decent and becoming in his natty Ralph Lauren official Olympic Games blazer and cap.

Yet as NBC's Bob Costas and Matt Lauer do their Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade routine, cracking alternately wise and warm throughout the elaborate ceremony, some nagging thoughts start to intrude on my sentimental experience.

Ostensibly, the Olympics are a simple festival of play, of gifted athletes running and jumping, swimming and shooting, tumbling and tussling for the purest of motives, not for profit but simply to have some fun. Of course, intense competition is central to the enjoyment, but according to the Olympic creed, the "most important thing in the Games is not to win but to take part." Though a bit tedious, the parade of more than 200 nations in the opening ceremony (the vast majority of which will never win a single medal) nicely captures that inclusive, democratic spirit. The fanfare reminds us that play is "an absolutely primary category of life," as the great Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga put it – indeed, that it is the very basis of civilization.

But are the Olympics actually dedicated to the exuberant spirit of play? Hardly, says John Hober­man, a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas who has written extensively on the many corruptions of the modern Games. "The Olympic 'movement' is a racket," Hoberman writes in the current issue of Foreign Policy. Far from being an apolitical celebration of enlightened cosmopolitanism, promoting peace and cooperation through the redemptive rituals of sport, the Olympics have mostly been a staging ground for trumped-up nationalism, doped-up athleticism, and corporate opportunism. Rather than advancing an agenda of human rights, the Olympics have in fact abetted the bloodiest century in human history.

It's all utterly perverse if you think about it: nations hoping to overcome crises of self-esteem and enhance their prestige by winning mere games. Consider East Germany. No country invested more heavily, or more fraudulently, in triumphing at the Olympics. It won a total of 519 medals, by far the most per capita of any nation. And for what? "The country ended on the shit heap of history," says Hoberman.

So what's the point? What does it matter if the U.S. wins more medals than China or Russia? I'm afraid I don't have a very good answer to that one – except to say that it doesn't matter. At best, all play is pointless. Indeed, that is the beauty of play.

The trick is remembering that.

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Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, Johan Huizinga, John Hoberman, Olympic Games, Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant

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