Saturday, February 8, 2014

On the Olympics

Until last night, it had been I don’t know how long since I’ve watched Olympic Opening Ceremonies. By turns, I’ve found the Games in general to be inspiring, sweetly tense, beautiful, overly consumptive, silly, distracting, irrelevant, irritating, and, in the pageantry, an over arching exercise in the willfully ignorant things we tell ourselves about who we are as humans, nations, and the world.

And, yet, the kernel of goodness at the heart of it all—the raw intention of people vying for the honor of representing their homes with their best talents—brings me to tears, despite all my objections. That is maybe the sweetest motivation I can think of, one I wish was cleaved to more cleanly in all things.

These Olympics in particular, with their multitudes of crimes against the human heart being pushed aside with palm trees and Go-Go boots, bother me. I am thrilled that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot have been released and are speaking out for the unheard in Russia. I love that the creepy patronizing paternalism of Putin releasing them from prison to, seemingly, smooth over the Russian ban on homosexuality and other attendant criticisms of the Olympic host, has not resulted in a grateful silence from these strong loud women.

And yet, Russia is the current abode of Edward Snowden, who also spoke truth to power about a repressive and secretive government. The picking and choosing of what free speech we in the United States love and what we find treasonous, this bothers me. How we cannot see ourselves truly, we cannot see beyond the comfortably myth of who we would like to continue to see ourselves as.

The Opening Ceremonies, with their artistic and industrially intricate portrayals of Russian history and national mythos were gorgeous. Parts, the little girl flying and the coalescing islands and the ever shifting floor that was by turns sea and streets and sky—these are fables I could get lost in. I would love to lose myself in a fairy tale, or rather, find my way through the myth and live it into reality. I believe in the power of fiction to offer us better ways of being, to pull like the North Star on our hearts and best intentions.

Such stories are not an end unto themselves. The happily ever after, the red balloons of promise, rising into the future, this is on us to create.

I want to believe that the rituals we re-enact, the stories we tell and retell, still have some possibility to offer if we learn to re-read them. Something like the old choose your own adventure books, where you got to start again. I want to find that underneath the McDonalds commercials and the glitz and all the sickening Potemkin Village aspects of these and other Olympics, there is enough goodness to rebuild from. I want to refind, rekindle that good core of intent and learn to live out the story more cleanly and honestly.

It is work to bring out the goodness at the heart of this whole show. What is wonderful is people loving what they do and being incredibly strong and graceful and true to their understanding of themselves and what they do with their lives. What is wonderful is that no one really represents their country—countries are mostly just lines on maps, concepts. I believe that everyone there represents what they do know, where they do live, who they know and love. On the very slim chance that I will ever be an Olympian, I’m quite sure that the American flag on my sweater and the letters USA would signify the mountains and forests of New England, the stonewalls and maple trees, rocky coasts and gnarled pines, but mostly the people who got me to where I was. I would be, as I am any day, a representative of all their belief in me. I like to imagine that the athletes are there for similar reasons—because their parents took them to practice at odd hours, because their friends loaned them gear and brought them food, because their coach mentored the fire of their need, because their sister held their hair back when they vomited after a ski race, and all the rest. Our identities are in the shape and shapers of our hearts, not on flags or maps or passports.

If we can return to these powerful loves at the core of the games, then I think they’re lovely examples of human possibility. It is when the seeds of people pouring their hearts into what they love, deeply believing that what they do is a truth that needs to be brought into the world, when this gets lost that I can’t be party to the grotesquely lurching spectacle of it all.

I’ve been nervously watching these Games unfold. I want so much for them to be the pure, politically free, showcase of heart and body and drive that I believe they should be. I want to believe that most of the athletes deserve this, as anyone deserves the goals along their chosen path. Watching the Ceremonies, whenever they cut to Putin, I found myself thinking how he isn’t fooling anyone.

Instead, I worry that we’re all fooling ourselves. Climate change, economic disparity, war, famine, repression of the human need to love, inability to understand that religion is larger than one faith, terrorism, silenced dissenters to power, corporate takeover of our lives, fake snow, euthanized dogs, Olympians who bought second country citizenship in order to compete, peasants banned from harvesting garlic near Sochi, struggling Peace Talks for Syria that are simultaneous to these Games, all of these weigh heavily on my heart thinking of the Olympics, these in particular.

I do not want all of this wrongness to continue to be the story we live out, Olympic or otherwise. There is another way. There are many other ways. Here is where the athletes come in, the ones who are there out of love for their sport, their homes, their people—great feats are possible when we look within and bring our best into being. We are yet capable of such greatness, every day, not just every four years.

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