Solnit on the Olympics and politics

The always-wonderful essayist Rebecca Solnit (who I’ve written about here several times before) has written a fine new article on the Olympics and politics for the latest issue of Orion Magazine.

In the article, Solnit examines the relationship between athleticism, nationalism, and politics, arguing that the Olympics’ “no-politics” rules do not so much remove politics from the Games as reinforce the politics of the status quo. Solnit writes:

The athletes’ bodies are relentlessly particular, concrete, personal, and tangible: the reality of flesh, of heart, of effort, of this tense face, that muscled arm, that DNA, and that training and determination. This is why it’s so peculiar that the Olympics suspend these bodies in an abstracted superstructure of nationalism, as though this feat of balance really had something to do with Austria, that burst of power really represented Japan.

In the Olympics, the individual athlete becomes a representative of national identity—the “public face” or “mask” of a nation. We’re asked to forget that the vast and awesome spectacle of the Chinese games comes at a great cost, and that for every Olympic athlete who is celebrated, there are thousands or millions of other people who suffer in repression and poverty. Solnit goes on:

It serves the nations of the world to support the exquisitely trained Olympian bodies, and it often serves their more urgent political and economic agendas to subject other bodies to torture, mutilation, and violent death, as well as to look away from quieter deaths from deprivation and pollution. In the struggles for land and resources—for Chinese control of Tibet, and for the petroleum fields of Sudan and the timber and mineral wealth of Burma—bodies are mowed down like weeds. The celebrated athletic bodies exist in some sort of tension with the bodies that are being treated as worthless and disposable.

I’ve been enjoying watching the Olympics this summer—I’ve been astounded and amazed again and again by the remarkable feats of athleticism that I’ve witnessed, and on a number of occasions I’ve found myself on my feet and cheering for great performances. But at the same time, I share Solnit’s discomfort with the political context of the Games. I’m disturbed by the stories of children being taken from their families at the age of three to begin training to become a world-class gymnast, and by the simple and obvious fact that athletes from rich countries (and those who can train in rich countries) are the ones who succeed at the Games, whereas athletes from poorer countries win medals much less frequently. I’m also troubled by the complete absence of any images of China’s millions and millions of poor people, and by the general silence of the television commentators on the ways in which so much about China has been carefully hidden in order to present a proud and cosmopolitan face to the world. There’s much to be said for the Olympic vision of international athletic competition as a means to unite the world; but I think the Olympics can’t really take credit for fostering international cooperation if the only means by which they can achieve it is to put on such a dramatic spectacle that we momentarily ignore or forget all that environmental degradation, political repression, poverty, and war.

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