February 16, 2010

Olympic Fever an Adverse Condition

Print More

Surely there was something symbolic in the technical glitch that disrupted the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics on Friday night. In the original plan, four giant phalluses were to have risen from the ground in unison. Instead, one of the columns got the jitters, stayed down and embarrassed Canadian speedskater Catriona LeMay Doan, who was overseeing this automated erection. Needless to say, it’s not the way you want to end your first date.

But this non-consummation jived quite well with the alarmingly balmy temperatures and tepid rain that had been plaguing Vancouver for days, as well as the general feeling of ill ease and tension that’s surrounded the games for some time. As a financial and political undertaking of massive proportions, the Olympics always invites its share of controversy and backroom wrangling, and Vancouver’s been no different: Heavy-handed police tactics, censorship and disregard for athletes’ safety are but a few of the more unsavory aspects of these festivities.

We like to assume it’s all worth it, though, watching the pairs figure skating finals and the tears streaming from a gold medaling biathlete’s face. But when taken as a coda to the political farce of the Beijing Olympics, we’re forced to take a more cynical attitude. What exactly, besides some fine sporting events, does the Olympics accomplish?

The Olympic Charter of the International Olympic Committee states that the Games aim to promote “respect for universal fundamental and ethical principles” and “a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Pierre de Coubertin, the inventor of the modern Games, conceived the five-ring logo as a symbol of the unity of the five continents (apparently the Americas only count for one), and the accepted wisdom for over a century has been that the Olympics is a unique opportunity for the peoples of the world to come together in an apolitical, dispassionate celebration of fitness and peace.

Of course, the quadrennial event has rarely lived up to its ideal. The 1936 Games gave Hitler a chance to show off the frightening discipline of the Third Reich and its intolerance of non-Aryan champions; the 1980 and 1984 versions saw the Soviet bloc and the American empire boycotting each other in return for perceived slights. And at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, which began shortly after the government’s massacre of hundreds of students protesting in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home for giving the black power salute during the Star Spangled Banner.

Most recently, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing exposed the fallacy that the Games inherently encourage free speech and tolerance. Insisting that China would be forced to liberalize under the intense gaze of the world sports community, the IOC blithely ignored the government’s muzzling of media criticism and protest and stood idly by while the regime empowered itself at the expense of its citizens. A year and a half later, China is anything but more open, and the party chairmen are reveling in the sense of awe and fear inspired by their preposterously well-planned event.

Which brings us to Canada. One would hope that, given the somewhat lesser prestige of the Winter Games and the relatively tolerant political climate of our northern neighbor, there would be few reasons for concern.

But the weather and the failed erections are only the latest sign of trouble. Last year, British Columbia passed a law that prohibited “anti-Olympic” displays, allowing police to enter private residences to remove such messages and to imprison offenders for six months. In one instance, an art gallery was forced to remove a mural reimagining the Olympic rings as four happy faces and one sad one. Indigenous rights protesters, upset over the Games’ appropriation of both their culture and lands absorbed without permission, have been repeatedly harassed and jailed. Taking a page from the Chinese, Canadian authorities — who, with 16,000 officers on hand, have turned Vancouver into a virtual police state — have restricted demonstrations to strictly delimited zones and altered the course of the torch relay on Friday to avoid a paltry gathering of naysayers.

But the most upsetting event so far has been the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a test run on Friday. In typical fashion, the Games’ organizers issued a statement blaming Kumaritashvili’s failure to “compensate properly” for the track’s conditions, and made only brief mention of the dangerous nature of the venue. Of course, Canada’s unsportsmanlike “Own the Podium” campaign, which has severely limited foreigner’s access to event sites and given Canadian athletes preferential treatment, may have had something to do with that.

Considering all this, it’s hard to swallow the IOC’s old line that the Olympics are a liberating endeavor conducive to the spread of human rights. Granted the unblinking attention of the world for two weeks, countries tend instead to sacrifice any semblance of integrity in exchange for a pretty television feed. Support our athletes as we might — and the inclusion of Rebecca Johnston ’12 on Canada’s women’s hockey roster is an unequivocal cause of celebration — we can’t help but wonder what’s it all for.

Maybe that fourth pillar was onto something.

Ted Hamilton, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, is one of the Sun’s Arts and Entertainment Editors. He may be reached at thamilton@cornellsun.com. Brain in a Vat appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ted Hamilton