It’s hard to get excited about the Winter Olympics. Watching elite athletes do elite sports is not on the same level of human drama that plays out at the Summer Games. Face it, you have to be pretty well off to even discover an aptitude for skiing. The winter games are mostly watching privileged people be better at something you can’t afford to try. Plus if you qualify for the Winter Olympics you are more than likely from an industrialized nation with a history of human rights (something about snow ensures basic government functioning).
In short: Curling isn’t the only reason the Winter Olympics are lame.
While only 82 countries participated in the 2010 games in Vancouver, every nation save three (South Sudan, Kosovo and Vatican City) will be competing in the 2012 games in London. It’s truly a global event. It’s also the first time every nation will have sent a female athlete. Saudi Arabia, where women can barely vote let alone drive, is sending two female athletes to the games for the first time. Qatar and Brunei (also with spotty women’s suffrage) have women representing them as well this year.
The Summer Olympics are not just about seeing who throws farther than other people who can throw far. The Summer Olympics are a metaphor for what we idealize as the American Dream. Our impenetrable Puritan values: Hard work has a pay off. It’s the pageantry of the best of the best and how they got there. It’s sportsmanship sure, but for Americans the summer games is an opportunity for us to romanticize individualism.
Americans, after all, see ourselves as pioneers—as homesteaders—people who in our mythology can handle a hurdle race or two.
For us, Olympian rags-to-riches tales are what America is based on: Pulling on your bootstraps until you find yourself on the center rostrum.
Last week, President Obama botched paraphrasing an Elizabeth Warren line, “No one in this country got rich on his own,” and ending up saying (if you scrub all context) no one built their own business. The right-wing has been quick to refute this gaffe with a collective “did too!” The theme (at least) was clear: Success is a group effort.
Every Olympian represents an army of people supporting, nurturing and encouraging ability. No one gets to the Olympics on their own. No matter how naturally gifted—they’re on their way to London because people helped them get there. “People” meaning communities, parents and yes, governments.
I was raised in foster care. The alleged nanny state was my actual nanny. People will argue with me that I was raised by “people” and not the government. Which is like saying you don’t need electricity to light your home because you have a lamp. I know there was a mass of people (many employed by the state) investing their time and energy into my wellbeing. I showed up and did the work but I could not have done it all by myself. I had help. Tons.
That’s what the president was talking about: infrastructure. Our collective investment in our country.
When I watch the Olympics I see how the world treats its young people. I see their hope for the future on a balance beam. I see politics. I see progress. I see individuals representing the best of us—and all we can accomplish. I see the opposite of isolationism and selfishness. But mostly I see that truly American story of coming from behind and going for the gold.