Today, Friday, February 12, 2010, the Winter Olympics open in Vancouver, Canada. And I am thinking about the same things I always think about when I watch, first and foremost that these athletes express the heights of human physicality. Their often astonishing abilities are achieved through dedicated training and much personal sacrifice. Sometimes, the sacrifices are costly. This morning, Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili lost his life in a training accident.
This tragedy highlights the heroics of Olympic athletes, a quality the Olympic leaders may be losing sight of. In his appearance last night on The Colbert Report, scholar David Ross criticized the Olympic leaders for their symbolic abandonment of these hero-athletes. For decades, Olympic advertising art reflected “the glorification of the individual and the power of victory” through images of muscular, heroic human figures in action. In the 1960s, Ross explained, “the Olympics became corporatized” and “the Olympics” itself—rather than the athletes—became the subject of advertising art. Images of athletes, and indeed sports itself, were replaced by colorful, abstract designs that in no way reflect Olympic ideals. Corporate branding, he argues, says nothing about heroics, glory, or even “my country can beat your country.” Well, damn the corporations anyway. They never do get it right.
The Games, though ostensibly won by nations, are an arena for individual humans to show off their abilities. If we are lucky, and the athletes hit their zones at the right moments, we get to witness the achievement of one of the most sought after human conditions: the mind and body in complete harmony. Athletes, martial artists, and dancers work a lifetime to reach this state which they may attain only a few times. It is unpredictable and elusive but when you reach it—hell, even when you only see it through a television screen—you know it for true.