Olympic Fever Come and Gone

We've completely ignored our schooling and let ourselves become, dare I say it, obsessed with the Olympics for the past few days.  But now it's all over.  sigh.   Who knew synchronized swimming was so cool?  We also discovered hand ball, rhythmic gymnastics (professional hula-hoop tossing), and modern pentathlon, the event Marc wants to take up himself (running, fencing, swimming, shooting, and show-jumping (horses))!  But it's not the record-breaking gold medal moments that I keep thinking about.  It's the jaw-dropping performances during the Opening and Closing ceremonies.

China’s message wasn’t at all the message I was expecting to see broadcast to the estimated 4 billion viewers around the world. I imagined it would be something like: “We are a force to be reckoned with. Be afraid, be very afraid,” or some such display of chest-puffing you might expect from a self-empowered little brother. But instead China snuck in the back door. The stunning display of human discipline and cooperation by China’s thousands of performers during the ceremonies blew me away. I could not believe what I was seeing for so many reasons. Where were the neon lights and rock stars? Where were electric guitars and spotlights to wow me? I was expecting the usually steady stream of superstars displaying their greatness and instead I got a display of the incredible focus and determination of thousands. How did they get so many to work so hard for so long (rehearsing for hours on end for over a year) for so little recognition? Sure, the athletes do that kind of training but they are dreaming of the gold medal podium and subsequent fame. And politicians too, might put in that kind of hard, focused self-discipline, but great power is their aim. As money is the reward for bankers and businessmen, and fame is the payoff for years of practice for musicians or actors. But for these thousands of anonymous performers, whose goal was to be a tiny piece of a magnificent whole, a needle in a haystack, what was the reward? To have been a part of something to magnificent. None had their names plastered on billboards, none came away with a padded wallet or an Olympic medal. None of them were individuals seeking personal glory—they were in it for precisely the opposite end.

Could we ever get so many to work so hard for so little personal gain in the West? That was the message China sent to me. It
 wasn’t in-your-face kind of self-important inflation of national pride and patriotic sentiment. It was a display of what a people can do who are willing to give up individual glory for something beyond themselves.

To be willing to be anonymous—and not just willing, but to work so hard at it, to put in so much of yourself, your energy, your time, struck me as awe-inspiring. The ceremonies weren’t at all the display of power or importance I was expecting. They were instead almost a gift to the audience—given generously by the performers—the chance to see such a wonder of human cooperation.

The buzz around here is getting more and more electric: London 2012! London 2012! Living in England we have been happy to be living in the midst of the excitement. Britons looked forward with eagerness to the precious 8 minutes London was allotted in the Closing Ceremonies to give the world a taste of what to look forward to. When the moment arrived all the commentators held their breath with anticipation and what commenced was a standard dance/rock performance centring around a double-decker bus that circled the stadium floor. Then David Beckham kicked a soccer ball into the crowd. Then everyone climbed on the bus and neon lights twirled and swirled as it drove off.

I stared in near disgust at the TV. Here China had just opened the eyes of the world to the magical ability of thousands of people to cooperate in making performance art, and London marched in, was “youthful and loud” as the commentators called it, and, I would add, arrogant. It was the same old thing, and it wasn’t until China showed me how different things could be that I realized we in the West have been making and watching the same old thing over and over. It could have been MTV, it could have been the Superbowl, it could have been any rock concert in the western world. After seeing what I had seen China do, I was yet again amazed—this time at the realization of how selfish London's performance was. It was not about the audience; it was about the performer. These kind of performances say “see how sexy I am, how rich I am, how utterly cool I am”. But China’s performances said, “we’d like to offer you this wonder to
 behold”. After the red bus disappeared Marc turned and said, “how long has my culture been lame without me knowing it?”

China offered me a graceful, tactful and generous wakeup call. The divide between east and west, the dominance of my own culture, is not all I have been led to believe. Now I’m not saying China’s got everything right, but, I’m reminded, neither do we.


KT said...

You always put things so perfectly. I agree they were wonderful, and I agree on "they aren't perfect, but neither are we". I always ask the question, "what is normal?" and "who defines what normal is?"


dfoster said...

Its very interesting to hear your comments. I was at work (at a restaurant) and the closing ceremonies were on the TV in the background. It was muted, so I could hear neither the music nor the commentary. But the Chinese performance was jaw-dropping.

And it got me thinking a lot about their culture. And while I know my comments are only based on what I've heard and read (never having been there myself), I will make them anyhow.

China is an interesting mix of communist ideas and capitalism at the moment. While they do now have many western ideads about business creeping in, they still have an extremely authoritarian government. So...they can have Starbucks now, but only b/c their government allows it.

And while I do admire their apparent sense of cooperation and selflessness, it makes me think of the athletes who have been selected from the time they were 2 or 3 years old in order for China to have some of the best athletes in the world. And somehow, it feels disingenuous to the idea of an equal playing field.

And maybe this is my western paradigm (which I hope I'm always willing to break down), but I still admire the individualism of athletes who have to rise to the top through rigorous competition and based on their own merits. And while I respect the talent of the chinese competitors, something in me recoils at the idea of state sponsored athletes who are cultivated from such a young age to have the weight of an entire country's expectations put on their shoulders.

I realize now that my comments are quite tangeantial from your blog post, but I'm putting them on anyway.

And I totally agree about western culture being loud and obnoxious. Damn MTV! (among others)

TheBenandKaties said...

I only caught bits and pieces of the opening and closing ceremonies, I was pretty dang impressed by the massive group performances. Once that darn British Britney popped out of the bus though, Katie and I changed the channel. Our pop culture is not only lame, it's boring. The truly sad thing is that those who are caught up in it (ie - the youth) are so freaking confused by the myriad of images and sounds being digitally vomited into their eyes and ears that they don't understand that what they are gobbling up has no value. They have been convinced that everything of worth is boring because it's not encased in noise and frosted with sex. Blech.

On a totally unrelated side note, to my discredit, my first thought as I read your awesome description of the chinese performances, was - "Crap, we're screwed if they ever all decide to take over the world."

Ryan (Ranger) said...

oh, to be "encased in noise and frosted with sex".
really did like that phrase though.


Olivia Meikle said...

Ah, Katie, once again you say exactly what I was thinking.

Well, okay, I was thinking "Holy freaking cow!" but this is what I meant.

Amen, and amen.