OK, I admit it, there is other work I could be doing, but I am watching the Winter Olympics. I daresay the same is true for much of Canada. Right now I’m flipping back and forth between a live webcast of the women’s ski jumping and a replay of the early groups of pairs figure skaters. But I have my reservations about the Winter Olympics.
1) The Winter Olympics is the privilege Olympics. Much has been made of the Canadian freestyle-skiing sisters Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, who won gold and silver in moguls skiing. What they did is great. Their parents have been the subject of several cute “how to raise an Olympian” video capsules. Nearly every article has mentioned how their university-educated mother decided to stay home to raise the girls, how the family sold their sailboat to fund the girls’ training expenses, and how the family “decided to buy a cottage” in the Laurentian mountains so the girls could have a home base close to the mountains. The girls also went to private school. How many families– even first-world, educated, middle or upper-middle class families– could afford this. The Dufour-Lapointe parents are clearly great parents, but they are not a representative sample of humanity. 98% of Earth’s families could not do this. Mine couldn’t have, although they did help me with skating as best they possibly could.
For skating, skiing and snowboarding, equipment, outfits, coaching and even rental of the space you train on costs a fortune. As a recreational young adult figure skater, I was costing my parents probably $50 every weekend for ice time and lessons, not counting the gas to and from skating, competition and test fees, and the boots, blades and dresses. It would have been five times that much had I been a serious competitor. Not every family can do that.
Not every sport is as expensive as the snow sports, but to be a skater, you still need to pay for equipment and live somewhere with easily accessible, well-maintained ice.
That’s one reason why the Parade of Nations at London 2012 was a three-hour spectacle, while this one was over and done with in less than half the time.
That, and the climate. To become a skater, a skier, a snowboarder or a slider, it helps to live in a part of the world with a concept of ice. Some exceptions do apply– looking at you Bruno Banani and Philip Boit — but it sure helps. Many warm countries, such as Togo and Morocco, are sending athletes who have grown up abroad, in the Northern Hemisphere and in relatively priveleged (financially and geographically) environments. In no way am I saying that’s a bad thing or criticizing the athletes who do it– I would do the same in their position–just pointing out the unlikelihood of a Togolese skier actually growing up in Togo.
The Winter Olympics are the Privilege Olympics and the Cold Country Olympics. At the Summer Olympics yuou can truly say that “the youth of the world gather.” The Winter Olympics? Nope. A financially and geographically privileged subsection of the youth of the world maybe.
2) They’re only Games, people!
The event is called the Olympic Winter Games. People dwell on the Olympic, Winter and forget about the Games. The Olympics are wonderful for the athletes,the coaches and families and friends, and I’m watching all the Olympics I can and rooting for every single athlete to surpass their own expectations, keeping and especially close eye on the Quebecers, especially the ones I’ve met while working on the QCT Olympic Portrait series, and the Slovenians in their lemon yellow uniforms–much better than the American Christmas sweaters, blech!
The Olympics are great fun for the athletes, but they have no wider significance. Let’s take an example No matter who wins the men’s hockey gold-medal game on the last day of the Games– in which a team of young millionaires who happened to be born north of the 49th parallel will face off against a team of young millionaires who grew up south of that very same latitude line, duelling for control of a small black rubber puck–both Canada and the United States will still be great nations on the following day. Same deal for the US/Canada ice dance battle between Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White. It’s an adrenaine rush to see your country top the medal standings, but what effect does this have on your country’s place in the world, or indeed your life?
Anyone who played 10 minutes of sports growing up has heard the phrase, “It’s only a game.” It might be nice to remember that again.
It’s all about the athletes. Let’s let them have their fun without placing the inflated “hopes of a nation” on their shoulders!
3) Nationalism and hypocrisy- I think sports is a replacement for war. In the past 60 or 80 years, sports has become the only context where state faces off against state, where it’s OK to say “we’re better than you because we’re (name of country) and you’re not. Go (name of country)! I’ve known Olympic fans who will only watch the athletes from their home country– and the US and Canadian media encourage that. It also gives way to overblown expectations and a kind of hypocrisy in the way it throws obscure sports into a sudden spotlight. Take skiers. Last year,the members of the Canadian ski team were zipping down the slopes of Europe in peace. This year, the skiers who win this particular competition are “heroes” and the ones who fail “let the country down”. Either way, in the week that follows they have their performance picked apart by armchair experts who know nothing about their sport and until the month previous never cared to know. I don’t know how the athletes function and how they avoid telling the self-declared experts to take a hike!
4) In the Northern Hemisphere, no one pays attention to anything else.
While we watch skiers and skaters, the rest of the world doesn’t stop rotating. My colleague Louis-Philippe was complaining about this earlier and at first I thought he was being a curmudgeon but now I can’t help but agree. While we focus on winter sports which we barely even knew existed one year before, the people of Homs, in Syria, “live on grass and olives.” In the Central African Republic, there are warnings of a food shortage because more than 90% of the food wholesalers have fled the war. And in Burundi, more than 50 people, possibly more than 100, were killed in floods yesterday night in my adopted hometown of Bujumbura (If you want to donate to the Burundian Red Cross to help the injured and displaced, please go here).
I don’t think this is exclusive to “third-world” crises either. If Rob Ford wants to resign without anyone noticing, he ought to do it now.
5) Sochi. The Western righteous indignation over the “homosexual propaganda” law has gone a bit far. Knowing that I’m a russophile, a biseuxal person and an Olympics geek, a lot of people have asked me how I felt about this. I tend to agree with Barack Obama and the Russian gay activist Nikolai Alekseyev. Just let the Games continue and hopefully some gay and lesbian athletes will win stuff– how’s that for “gay propaganda?” Don’t penalize a generation of innocent athletes. The fabulous Ireen Wust has already proven Obama and Alekseyev right. It also hurts gay rights activists from the region, who will now be seen as Western puppets even more than they actually are. Let them fight their own battles, how they see fit.
We shouldn’t forget about the environmental damage and the displaced people forced to move house to make room for a festival of sport that will last less than a week. But this is not exclusive to the Sochi Olympics (link is to a documentary that is well worth your while to watch).
Let’s enjoy the great show the athletes are putting on. But please, people, let’s not make this any more than it is.