It’s that orotund opening theme song that drags you into watching the Olympics, that inescapable Cecil B. DeMille bombast suggesting Vulcan beating a kettle drum. Bum-bum-ba-BUM-BUM-bum-bum-ba-BUM-BUM. Battle stations! Ramming speed! Associations rush to mind — the classical splendor, the brotherhood of Man, the apotheosis of the physique, the ennobling of the spirit.
And then we get on with the event: Badminton. Trampolining. Beach volleyball. Water polo. This isn’t the body stretched to its limits — it’s the world’s largest gathering of every crank who took the croquet way too seriously at your last backyard barbecue. Would you invite back the man you found weeping in the shrubbery after he was undone at Jarts? Every four years such eccentrics are held up for our global adulation.
But that’s the Olympics: a gruesome wedding of inordinate self-importance with crackpot micro-monomania. Today’s games (not, please, Games) do not suggest the ancients and their simple olive wreaths. The combination of the pompous and prosaic calls to mind what the U.S. Postal Service would be like if it were run by the Hapsburg dynasty. The International Olympic Committee’s archdukes and barons — and I remind you that IOC president Jacques Rogge is literally a count, having been ennobled by the King of Belgium — bedizen one another with shiny badges and ribbons, paying little heed to the athletes, the seething provincials whose labor is the regime’s strength.
The Olympics committee is ham-fisted in sporting matters. But it excels at defending its fortress headquarters — the crown jewels, the palace vaults. When a writer for the London Spectator dubbed this summer’s activities “the censorship Olympics,” he took note of an alarming new British law that, in affording special trademark protection to Olympics sponsors only, ordered the courts to look warily on any usage by a business (or charity!) of a word or phrase from column A (such as “games” or “two thousand twelve”) with one from column B (such as “London”). Police were empowered to “enter land or premises” and “remove, destroy, conceal or erase any infringing article.” All previous speech-protection laws and policies were superseded for the temporary emergency.
So: A butcher in Weymouth, England, was forced to take down sausages arranged in rings. A village in Surrey was forbidden to hold an “Olympicnic” on its village green. Police ordered a newsdealer in East London to remove Union Jack bunting featuring the words “London 2012.”
Out there on the sporting field, though, things were less efficient. There is a numbing surplus of similar events. Did we really need this many answers to the question about who might be the swiftest swimmer or runner? Is there a Pulitzer for best work of fiction in the 50-, 100-, 150-, 200-, and 300-page ranges? Is there an Oscar for best film submitted by a foursome of directors?