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A Parade of Weird Little Worlds: The Olympics for Non-Sports Fans

Forget Michael Phelps and gymnastics. Part of the Olympics is about alternative culture and resistance to mainstream society.
 
 
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I am not, generally speaking, a sports fan.

To put it mildly.

But I am getting completely sucked into the Olympics. I'm finding that the Olympics have a tremendous amount to offer even the most apathetic non- sports- fan. And despite all the glitz and nationalism and water- cooler bandwagon- riding, I'm finding that the Olympics have a surprising amount to offer anyone who's interested in alternative culture and resistance to mainstream society.

Here's why.

Yes, I'm watching the gymnastics and a couple of the other big-ticket events (diving is always a good time). And yes, I'm watching women's wrestling, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who's read my sex writing. But mostly I'm being a big old dilettante, and am watching bits and pieces of the largely unsung sports.

Archery. Fencing. Badminton. Table tennis. Synchronized swimming. Trampoline.

I'm having a ball with this.

Partly, is that it's always a good time to watch people doing something -- anything at all -- really, really well. The look of pure concentration on a person's face when they're deeply immersed in something they passionately love and are extraordinarily good at is one of the most beautiful sights there is.

And, of course, part of it is the two-week parade of beautiful athletic bodies in tight, skimpy outfits. My libidinal interest varies from sport to sport (sky-high for divers and female wrestlers, almost nil for weightlifters and female gymnasts), but I can't be the only erotic connoisseur/ drooling pervert who's getting off on this.

But most of it is this:

One of the things I love best about human beings is the way we create these weird little worlds for ourselves. There are weird little worlds that I only know as an outsider, as a curious observer or casual fan. Competitive ballroom dancing. Model train building. Show dog owners. Evolutionary biology. And there are the weird little worlds that I participate in myself, either personally or professionally, with greater or lesser degrees of passion and immersion and happy insanity. Historical recreation societies. Contra dancing. Comic book fandom. Atheist blogging.

These worlds always call to mind for me a line from Dave Barry (I'm paraphrasing here): "There's a fine line between a hobby and mental illness." Yet at the same time, they call to mind that line from the teenage kid in "Trekkies" (paraphrasing again): "People tell me to get a life. Well, I have a life. This is my hobby. And having hobbies is part of having a life."

Having weird little worlds is part of having a life.

There are anthropologists and neurologists and evolutionary biologists who think that the human brain evolved to deal with about 100 or 150 other people. Two-hundred tops. I'm convinced that the forming of these weird little worlds is a way of narrowing down the dauntingly enormous and increasingly interconnected global village into something a bit more manageable. And in a world whose enormity and interconnectedness can make us feel flattened into lowest- common- denominator pulp, it's a way of retaining our quirky humanity and carving out an individual identity, without becoming isolated and atomized.

I love that each of these weird little worlds has not just its own skills and trends and passions, but its own gossip, its own politics, its own scandals and controversies. I love how immersed people get in our weird little worlds: how the issues of historically accurate shoes at Civil War re-enactments, or gender-balancing at contra dances, can seem like life or death. I love how much time and care and passion people put into these endeavors that will never make them famous or rich or remembered in the larger world, the world outside of a handful of equally demented enthusiasts.

And I love that these worlds have stars and celebrities that nobody on the outside has ever, ever heard of. If you don't do English country dancing, you've almost certainly never heard of Bare Necessities: and yet they are a band with a rabidly devoted following, across the country and around the world. And when my wife and I met PZ Myers on a recent visit he made to the Bay Area, we told all our friends about it with bubbly excitement ... to be met with almost universal blank stares. (Stares that got even blanker when we explained that he was "a famous biologist and atheist blogger." It took us a moment to remember that, for most of the world, the phrase "famous biologist and atheist blogger" sounds just a little bit silly.)

As thousands of pundits before me have noted, the world is becoming ickily homogenous, filled with depressingly interchangeable supermarkets and strip malls, processed foods and chain restaurants. But the weird little worlds of hobbyists and enthusiasts are a bulwark against that tendency. Whenever I despair over humanity losing its quirkiness, all I have to do is read the Carnival of the Godless, or go queer contra dancing, or turn on "Project Runway" and watch the contestants pissing themselves with excitement over some fashion designer I've never heard of.

And what I love about the Olympics is that, for two weeks every four years, I get a peek inside a dozen or so of these worlds.

I love finding out what the strategy is in weightlifting (yes, there's strategy -- I know, it was news to me as well), and that it's forbidden in Olympic weightlifting to lubricate your thighs. I love learning that a round of play in archery is called an "end." I love discovering the existence of a triathlon-style sport that combines running, swimming, fencing, shooting, and equestrian ... and learning that it was invented as a narrative of a soldier ordered to deliver a message on horseback.

And I love how intensely immersed the athletes are in their worlds, how hard they work to become so superbly good in them with so little in the way of obvious payoff.

I mean, it's easy to understand why you'd want to be a famous gymnast or a multi-medal-winning swimmer. If you succeed, you actually get a fair degree of fame and fortune in the larger world. But if you sacrifice years of your life to become the absolute top of your game in archery or fencing or badminton, nobody is ever going to know about it but your immediate circle of family and friends, a handful of other archers and fencers and badmintonites ... and every four years, some weirdos like me, who could care less about Michael Phelps's eight gold medals but get intensely sucked into the women's saber competition for about fifteen minutes.

I love that they do it anyway.

(P.S. Tivo helps with this a lot, btw. I can't believe I ever watched the Olympics without it. Tivo lets you watch all the weird events you want to watch ... and skip the ones you think are boring.)

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.

 
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