09 August 2012

re: the olympics.

I've heard that there's something called the Olympics going on right now. Apparently young men and women from across the globe dress up in colorful lycra vestments and execute predetermined but seemingly useless physical tasks in the hopes of securing big-dollar advertising endorsements. And the rest of us watch.

Am I a bitter killjoy? You bet. If there were an Olympics competition in bitter killjoyism—and I don't understand why there's not—I could bring to bear my forty years of intensive (if not intentional) training and make myself the spunky, crowd-beloved Mary Lou Retton of the sport.

But in all seriousness, the thing that strikes me about sports—all sports, not just the Olympic variety—is that these games and performative acts were essentially invented by us so that we could celebrate our own achievements in them. It's a bit like earning a gold medal for stacking the most empty beer cans in a frat house. We never venture the question Why? but simply accept, as an article of faith, that any task that is challenging in some way must be worth doing. Why do mountain climbers climb mountains? Because they're there, of course. I'm not suggesting that isn't a sufficient reason for the climber, but it's never been a reason that spoke to me personally.

Admittedly, most Olympic sports require more skill, stamina, and strength (of whatever variety) than stacking beer cans, so we are distracted by the exertion of the athletes and the difficulty of the tasks set forth and lose sight of the essential arbitrariness of it all. Although the various events in gymnastics, for example, are extraordinarily difficult, I can't really respond to them with any passion because all I see is some short, buff dude swinging around on some rings. Why is he doing that? What would possess him? What makes a young person—and they start very, very young, of course—decide he wants to surrender much of his life to learn to perform this useless, insanely difficult task. Yes, in the abstract, I suppose I can appreciate his devotion and his discipline—but to what end? I can't help thinking such a wealth of devotion and discipline could be put to better use.

Now a case could be made that sports such as running and swimming aren't really 'invented' by us; they're natural human activities. Animals in the wild run and swim without needing an Olympics arena or a gold medal to validate their accomplishments. As a participatory activity, I can completely understand running and swimming—but as a spectator sport that sedentary viewers get an adrenaline rush from? Really? Your life is somehow enriched when Michael Phelps gets another medal? You feel that you have some stake in his achievements simply because he's from the United States and you, likewise, are from the United States.

Noam Chomsky, a professional nerd and killjoy, described spectator sports as (I'm paraphrasing here) the training ground for jingoism and nationalism. It's easy to see his point when you remember that swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are douchebags of epic proportions. I mean, they're like Adam Levine-level douchebags, which is no small Olympian feat in itself. So why should I want them to win rather than, say, some modest, hardworking Swede who has a heartfelt dream but little realistic chance of succeeding? Is Lochte's nationality supposed to trump his douchiness?

None of this is intended to criticize a person's enthusiasm for watching sports. (And I need to make a significant distinction between watching sports and playing them. An enthusiasm in participating in a game or activity of some sort is infinitely more comprehensible—to me, anyway—than a vicarious pleasure in somebody else's participation.) This is only a way of working out what I don't understand about it. I anticipate that many would argue that this is where the problem lies: I am trying to understand spectator sports rather than feel their innate appeal. But on that level too, I draw a blank. I don't feel any connection between them and me. The narcissist in me is always ready to ask, 'Yeah, but what does this have to do with me?' Maybe you simply can't be a hardcore misanthrope and a sports fan at the same time; maybe being a sports fan requires some fellow-felling, an interest in the preoccupations of others. My reflexive response—a profoundly dysfunctional one, of course—is that since sports preoccupy so many people, there's probably something wrong with or at least questionable about them. The most visible and invested sports fans don't inspire me to want to be like them.

I can't think of many subsets of American culture that are as generally reviled as sports haters. You might as well be a communist, child-molesting Islamic fundamentalist. Your politics, your sexuality, and your religion might differ, but if you can talk about yesterday's game in line at the DMV, there's something sufficiently human about you. If, on the other hand, you say, 'I don't follow any sports,' you've identified yourself as one of those people—a species as alien and indecipherable as a bacterium or Michael Jackson.


  1. "Your life is somehow enriched when Michael Phelps gets another medal?"

    No, but I still enjoy watching excellence, I guess. I've been watching the Olympics because, well, there's nothing else to watch and I don't like to think too much when the opportunity presents itself.

    I'm probably not your typical sports fan. I only follow basketball, and I'll watch major events from other sports on occasion. There's a lot of truth in what Chomsky states, but sports also offers a community and people crave that. Thin gruel, I suppose.

    Did you ever play sports as a kid, David? I don't think I'd like sports if I hadn't played basketball when I was younger. I was never particularly good at it, but I do love it. I love it for the same reasons I love going to a museum or reading a great book: It takes me out of myself. Plus, it's a safe space to elbow somebody in his ribs and feel the grunt of air leave him. Superior asshole thought he was the cock of the walk and now look at him, ya know?

    1. No, I never did play any sports. (Well, except as required in gym.) But at the same time I never really wanted to either. My Dad is a big sports fan (except for baseball, which he seems to hate for some reason), but this apple fell far from that tree.

      Again, I'm not hatin' on people who enjoy sports--unless they're those loudmouth, drunk slobs who set cars on fire when their team loses the big game--but I don't get it. (Unless the sport is ping pong! That's a real sport!)

  2. I can't think of many subsets of American culture that are as generally reviled as sports haters.

    Me neither. You should have seen the faces of my coworkers when we were supposed to show up at a company potluck dressed as a member of our favorite sports team and I showed up in my usual attire (jeans, dark solid shirt). At first it seemed as though I hurt some feelings, but then I saw some facial expressions change to 'Fucking weirdo' after I said I didn't enjoy watching any sports.

    That being said, I'm not currently following the Olympics. If I am somewhere they are being broadcast, I will watch, but I won't Tivo them or stay up late to watch them (and I'm not only watching to see someone fall, as one might think). When I do watch, I like gymnastics and figure skating, and that's about it.

    Olympic excellence impresses me, and I understand the sacrifices the athletes make, but not enough to follow it. I guess it's just fun to watch. Maybe people are attracted to sports in the same way a female bird will be attracted to the male with the most colorful feathers or who does the best dance.

    1. Maybe the 'fucking weirdo' look had nothing to do with disliking sports.

      Don't get me wrong... the Olympics are much better than, say, football. And the falls and wipeouts *are* entertaining.

  3. I have to admit I like women's soccer.

    1. Why am I not surprised by this?

    2. I'm surprised he didn't say 'women's volleyball.'

  4. "Is Lochte's nationality supposed to trump his douchiness?"

    It's a tough call, I must admit. My wife was horrified when I actively rooted against some of the Americans this year. I really wanted those volleball douchebags (Misty May and whatever her name is) to get crushed so they'd shut the fuck up but I did feel a bit guilty that I was rooting for a couple of Chinese and Italian women, who could very well be huge douchebags themselves, over my fellow Americans. I was relieved to be able to root for the other American team in the championship. It allowed me to maintain my patriotism while hating on two of the most annoying humans to ever compete in an athletic competition.