Welcome to the American Olympics
Olympics mania is upon us. For a two-week period, people are gathering around their TV sets and rooting for people and entire sports they'd never even heard of last week. We want to believe, in the hype of peaceful global cooperation as well as in the actual spectacle of obscure athletes who are the planet's best at what they do. And when we watch, to get to those gems of excellence, most of us must wade through a sea of nauseating jingoism that works overtime to remind us of just how superior to the rest of the world we think we are.
Here in Seattle, we're among the fortunate few. Along with Detroit, Buffalo, and a few other scattered cities along the northern border, we can get Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) telecasts from Salt Lake. The rest of the country, quite literally, doesn't know what it's missing. For one, that's because NBC and MSNBC are taping and prepackaging most events, rather than showing them live, so they can skip from one American performance to the next without bothering with most of those other boring competitors. (The names are too hard to pronounce, anyway.) Instead, the spare time is filled with heartwarming sagas of how this or that American athlete has labored for years in obscurity, overcoming the inevitable hardship, in order to arrive at this moment and this chance for glory.
Are Olympic stories compelling? Sure. I can testify to that. As a teen, I had a legitimate (though not as much as I thought at the time) shot at the Olympic team in '76 as a distance runner, and the people who the world is now watching, regardless of their sport, really do make it their lives. And they really are that good. All of them, regardless of nationality. And that's what you see on the CBC. (And, I suspect, on most of the rest of the world's satellite feeds.)
Now, to be sure, the Canadians are guilty of boosterism, too, and part of the broadcast team's coverage of other countries' athletes is a numbers game, due to the lack of competitive Canadians in many of the sports. And even then they get their flag-waving in. ("Hoser Johnson is about to get lapped! Again! Let's take a look at how he got to this point in the race, eh?") But there is a respect for the actual competition, and the athletes, that extends beyond CBC's willingness to show events live and feature other countries' stars without the constant medal counts and chest-thumping.
Part of the appeal of the Olympics is its carefully cultivated image of selfless altruism and global harmony. (In actuality, it's a huge and lucrative business gussied up as a benevolent non- profit.) But while selling that image, the United States, especially in years when it hosts the games, tends to think it's all about us. And among the world's 192 countries, we've hosted the Olympics an astonishing five times in the last 42 years, with a sixth, for the Winter games in 1976 in Denver, awarded and then cancelled when local citizens refused to pony up the then- breathtaking costs. (Today, every month or so some city is paying as much for a new stadium.) In that period, only Japan (3), and Canada, France, and Austria (2) have also hosted the Olympics more than once.
This is largely due to not just U.S. political influence and the value of its TV markets, but our ability to pay the huge costs of hosting. Those costs are national as well as local. At present, for example, there are more U.S. soldiers stationed in Utah than Afghanistan, hoping, in this age of jihad, to avoid the fate of our last home Olympics (less than six years ago), when a small bomb ruined Coca-Cola's party in Atlanta.
A sociologist could probably find something compelling in U.S. media's obsession with proving that no matter what we do or who among us does it, America really is #1. It reeks of an insecurity, or immaturity, not befitting a great nation. But the simpler truth is, it's probably what the networks think American audiences want. We grow up with mindless jingoism and "America #1" propaganda from birth, instilled on a daily basis for 12 years of schooling as kids. It so permeates our culture that in the Olympics telecasts -- ignoring the rest of the world, taping the events, and deploying cheap melodrama and relentless chatter over the bits of action actually shown (is it the Olympics or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?) it is, for many of us, as unnoticed as water to a fish. It takes being exposed to an alternative to realize there's a better way. And as goes the Olympics, so goes America at large.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State!