I hope to be able to write more about the Games in the next few days. For now, I just wanted to flag two nice quotes from last Sunday’s New York Times Sunday Magazine Olympics edition. There are, among other features, long profiles of Katie Ledecky and Justin Gatlin and an interesting, though incomplete account of how Boston rejected the 2024 Olympics. There are also reflections on ten memorable Olympic moments, from the Fosbury flop (1968) to the most famous (or at least politically-charged) Water Polo match of all time (USSR vs. Hungary, 1956).
Two observations stood out among these reflections.
1) Michelle Dean recalls the Canadian figure skater Elizabeth Manley winning the silver medal in 1988, the year that the superstar East German Katarina Witt won her second gold medal. Dean takes the opportunity to consider the Canadian national character. She quotes an American friend of hers describing “Silver, a.k.a, Canadian Gold.” Dean argues that there is much to recommend a national disposition that rejects the Lombardian ethos that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
She writes: “This may mean that we get very few gold medals, but we will always have the particular sort of pride that comes with saying we did our best, nobody lost their head and everything was accomplished with a minimum of self-aggrandizement, megalomania or unrealistic expectations. This is a deeply underrated variety of satisfaction. More countries should try it.”
Not for nothing, I might add, Canadians live pretty damn well and, also not for nothing, the world at large might be better off if Canadians’ southern neighbors took that message to heart, even just a little.
2) Nitsuh Abebe writes about marathoner Abebe Bikila’s historic gold medal in the 1960 Rome games. Bikila was the first black African to win a gold medal. He also ran barefoot, which added to his legend (and lots of stereotypes about African poverty). But while Olympics boosters like to recount stories such as Bikila’s as an emblem of the Olympic spirit, that individual human will can achieve anything, Nitsuh Abebe sees a different reality.
“It’s hard, these days, for me to picture the Olympics as anything other than a massive and very expensive science experiment, in which a handful of overcompetitive first-world states with spare resources to invest in medal production filter their talented young athletes into research-driven training programs and qualifying competitions, optimizing as many facets as possible of their training, diet, gear, psychology, supplements and elaborate methods of cheating. This isn’t a test of human potential or athletic drive; it’s a test of corporate-organizational prowess…”
In their terrific book, Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stephen Szymanski use data-driven analysis to assess many features of the “beautiful game.” One of the questions they ask is what explains success in soccer. What they find – with exceptions, of course – is that success, both at the individual level and at the national level, is tied to national wealth and prosperity. On the one hand, this shouldn’t be surprising. On the other, it does challenge the individualistic ethos and mythology that drives so much sports coverage, particularly in the United States. Abebe captures nicely on that cultural habit.
And yes, I’ll be watching the Games throughout the next two weeks.