The Olympics! The eighth day of the eighth month of 2008, at eight minutes after eight o’clock (for the Chinese, the number eight represents prosperity). Like four billion other inhabitants of the planet, I watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics last night and found it staggering. It must surely be the largest and costliest single spectacle in human history, even discounting the expense of building the “bird’s nest” stadium. The crack precision of the thousands of performers executing carefully calibrated maneuvers was impressive and not a little daunting. It far surpassed the German equivalent as recorded in Leni Riefenstahl’s classic film about the 1936 Olympics, The Triumph of the Will. Unfortunately, the planner failed to omit thirty seconds of Chinese soldiers marching goose-step fashion, which rather undermined the peaceful ethos of the Olympic games.
On the other hand the spectacle included a summary of Chinese cultural history, beginning with Chinese calligraphic painting, the presentation imaginatively conflating dance with the movements of the inkbrush. And then on to the Chinese invention of printing with moveable type and so on up to digital contemporaneity, with glancing references along the way to other inventions like silk, fireworks (based on the Chinese discovery of gunpowder, about which I can’t avoid feeling ambivalent), and martial arts (suggested by the choreographed movements of 2008 practitioners of tai chi). Two omissions that puzzled me were Chinese poetry, one of the world’s greatest traditions, influential on twentieth century English-language poetry through the publicizing efforts of Ezra Pound; and Chinese porcelain, which numbers among the perfected achievements in visual art at any period, not to mention its utility in realms as disparate as dining, tiles, electrical equipment, and heat shields for spacecraft. Since we're on this topic, it's interesting to see poetry and porcelain meeting in some English-language textual instances, for example Gray’s poem about his cat drowning in a porcelain “tub” of goldfishes, Marianne Moore’s “Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain,” or Eliot’s “The stillness, as a Chinese jar still/Moves perpetually in its stillness” (Burnt Norton). You may think of other examples and alert me to them.
If we're meant to regard the Olympics as a world celebration of what the human body can do, there’s no need to wonder why its intellectual/ethical counterpart, the annual Nobel ceremony, isn’t televised. Even if it were, nothing like four billion viewers would tune in. For most people, the body is more absorbing, more compelling, than the mind. No artist can pull down the enormous salaries of famous athletes, with the occasional exception of film or rock stars (whose success is often more the result of physicality than artistic skill), and no artist has an audience as large as the sports audience. Does that mean sports are more important than art? I don’t think so, and if people were reasonable (which they aren’t), they’d agree. A sports event results in no lasting object, no pleasure that can be re-experienced, no advance in learning or technology, and no improvement in the social fabric. Once over, it’s done, though of course some few people may want to review the video record of a particular game from time to time. Most, however, will prefer to see newer events and pay huge admissions prices to do so. Fundamentally, it’s an ephemeral, one-off show of fleeting importance.
You can say that sports events encourage people to practice a sport and become fit, which is sometimes true. And yet America, the most sports-minded of all countries, has a devastatingly high percentage of people suffering from obesity. Please explain the disconnect. Also, we shouldn't overlook the high incidence of sports-related injuries, which leave some athletes permanently disabled or killed. Perhaps Muhammed Ali might be the symbol of this danger. Finally, sports events often result in spectaor violence, when winners and losers start insulting each other and then start getting physical, assisted by beer bottles and whatever blunt instruments are handy. I know that by raising these problems I will earn the hatred of all sports enthusiasts, and actually the totalitarianism is part of what bothers me. It's OK not to be interested in, say, handicrafts or gardening; but when you say you're not interested in sports, you're instantly branded as a freak or an unpatriotic s.o.b. I mean, it's just a game. Why do I have to care so intensely about who gets a pigskin over a certain boundary marked on a grassy field?
The Olympics have a putative value as an affirmation of peace and global cooperation; and, though it was a lift to see the wonderful variety of faces, ethnicities, and national costumes when each delegation paraded before the camera, how to overlook nationalistic conflicts going on between or within the countries represented? Georgia was being overrun by tanks at the very moment the Georgian and Russian teams were smiling at the world. When the Sudanese paraded their participants, how was it possible not to think of Darfur? When the five Palestinian participants walked slowly along, who could forget what is going on in their homeland? And so on with Iraq, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and the United States. World peace? Cruel irony.