What do we do now with our evenings and weekends? For two happy, mindless weeks, we have flopped down in front of the TV any spare minute we had, just to get our daily fix of the big show going on in Sydney. Cynicism, the pre-Games attitude du jour, went out the window the second the teams entered the Olympic Stadium the night of Sept. 15. Starting tomorrow, it will inevitably creep back in, which is all to the good. We can’t be cheerleaders forever. But life might seem very dull for a while.
Bad Things and Serious Issues — the lifeblood of cynicism — have admittedly been happening off to the side these past two weeks, sometimes even grabbing the headlines. Athletes have been stripped of their medals for drug violations. Whole teams have been ejected from the Olympic Village. Sports writers have filed their usual embarrassingly jingoistic stories. And protesters have done their thing throughout on behalf of Aborigines, people who didn’t get tickets to the opening ceremony, Sydney’s homeless, the world’s poor, the environment and assorted other victims. Some, if not all, of these issues and grievances are worth worrying about. But not now. We have to watch the Greco-Roman wrestling final.
The truth is, an Olympics-in-progress is irresistible, which is why the whole monstrous, gaudy bandwagon is bound to roll over its critics yet again — the Games will go on to Salt Lake City, Athens and beyond, reformed, perhaps, but essentially intact. The Olympic formula is too successful to jettison entirely. Once that flame is lit and the competitions begin, all the troubles and irritations of the preceding years recede. They don’t vanish, but for two weeks they remain in suspension, curiously unimportant. We watch events unfold with the uncritical fascination of a child listening to a fairy tale.
This is the key, of course, because the Olympics is at bottom just a giant mosaic of hundreds of variations on the classic fairy-tale plot. Here are heroic and beautiful people struggling against adversity, bad drug-takers scheming to outwit the virtuous, victory for the few, defeat for the many, gold at the end of the rainbow, clouds with silver linings, and some bronze razoos. For two weeks, we watch the same drama played out over and over. The stage, the players and the costumes change, but the plot is unalterable. And we never tire of it, because it is a type and symbol of our own lives: the whole irrational and unpredictable arc of human effort. (And there you were wondering about the philosophical significance of synchronized swimming.) If final proof is needed of the Olympics’ Camelot-like unreality, just think back to the women’s marathon medal ceremony, held in pouring rain last Sunday evening: Did anyone else notice that gold medalist Naoko Takahashi’s hair didn’t get wet?
This elemental appeal is also why we put up with spotty, incoherent and repetitive media coverage. What does it really matter if we get this story and not that one? Or if we see too many of our own less interesting athletes at the cost of seeing “the whole thing”? Nobody sees the whole thing; the Games have become much too vast for that. The idea is to get a sense of the big story by sampling a few of the small ones. To their credit, the local television networks hit most of the key moments — and thoughtfully replayed them often enough that every last soul in Japan will have seen Takahashi taking out the marathon in Olympic record time and the Japanese baseball team going down to bitter, valiant defeat.
But everyone will have his or her own defining 2000 Olympic moment (even the die-hard cynics have tonight’s closing ceremony to look forward to). These Games will also be remembered for some titanic struggles in the pool among a host of awesome swimmers; a star-shower of singular track victories; and nail-biting finishes in both the men’s and women’s triathlons — a new and pleasantly scenic event. Some might remember them for a splendid performance by a little Romanian gymnast who later lost her gold medal — but not, we think, her claim to it — for having taken a couple of capsules of cold medicine. And some might remember them for the unfortunate Japanese runner in paroxysms of shame after he dropped the baton in the men’s 400 meter relay Friday. You wanted to say to him, as the Australians do, “It’s all right, mate, it was only a race.” But he knows better. It was a parable: If failure is not terrible, winning is not wonderful. And who believes that?
Perhaps the cynics are right. The two years between now and the 2002 Winter Games might not really be so bad. No more nationalist excesses or tasteless displays of emotion; no more banal commentary, commercial exploitation or cliched hype. Just the sanity, sobriety, good taste, calm and intelligence that characterize our usual TV viewing fare. On second thoughts, we think we’d rather have the Olympics.
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