Magazine | August 27, 2012, Issue

Olympian Self-Seriousness

There should be a gold medal for crying

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 All previous speech-protection laws and policies were superseded for the temporary emergency.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?

Given that the International Olympic Committee rakes in billions from the likes of NBC and the BBC, you’d think they could have afforded to have an expert thumb on the stopwatch during the semi-final of the women’s fencing competition. Instead, Shin A-Lam of South Korea lost a chance at a gold medal in a match with Germany’s Britta Heidemann when the countdown inexplicably froze at one second long enough for Heidemann to score a victorious touch. Ms. Shin sat dejected on the piste, but after an hour of discussion her appeal was rejected. That she was offered a hastily devised consolation prize of some sort (the coveted zinc?) was a seeming admission of error by the archdukes, who issued a vague denial of reports that a 15-year-old volunteer was the timekeeper at fault. Ms. Shin had the good sense to refuse the ersatz honor.

An Algerian who didn’t want to run in the 800-meter race (he liked his chances in the 1500-meter instead, but his team forgot to enter withdrawal paperwork) gave a quarter-hearted effort, stopped running, and strolled off the track before the race was finished. The judges said he was disqualified from the entire Olympics for lack of competitive vim, then, after an outcry, hinted that he might be reinstated if he could produce a medical certificate attesting to his fitness, an issue previously not raised by anyone.

#page#A Canadian horse was barred from the team jumping competition because an infrared gizmo had documented “hypersensitivity” in the animal’s front left hoof. Team riders compared the alleged injury to having a cut on the finger and protested plausibly that they knew their animal better than the officials did. To no avail.

Despite all the flubs, the host nation has reacted with unwonted glee to the expensive gala, conferring (for instance) instant heroine status on its own Jessica Ennis for emerging the heptathlon victor after she proved the mistress of a farrago of obscure tasks few can list, much less pretend to be interested in. (Let’s see, there’s the jumping high, the putting of shot, the chucking of javelin, the . . . picking of banjo? fishing of bass?)

After the U.K.’s astounding Saturday, August 4, when it nabbed six golds, the Sunday Times was so excited that it chose the legend “Six of the Very Best” for its front-page headline, its editors apparently conflating resounding athletic victory with their own fondly remembered boarding-school beatings. Where are the dissenters who will note, for instance, the way each iteration of the Olympics seems more polluted with shoddy language, tinny commercialism, raw sentimentality?

It’s a pool, not an “aquatics center.”

Her Majesty is supposed to be the one person in the Western world who is not actually available to star in a little spoof of a James Bond film, but  acknowledgment must be made that throughout Danny Boyle’s bizarre opening ceremony the Queen maintained an appropriately regal look of frosty disdain, or possibly disbelief.

Teams of men engaged in athletic endeavor ought not to embrace one another except, as briefly and awkwardly as possible, after a championship victory, and should never shed tears owing to either victory or defeat, though patriotic emotion is acceptable. Instead the male volleyballers have a gang make-out session after each point. Even the swimmers have taken to hugging one another over their lane barriers. Everyone cries in contemplation of his or her own excellence. British gymnast Louis Smith cried after reaching the final round on the pommel horse. Giovanni Cernogoraz of Croatia cried just because he reached the final of trap shooting. If there’s any “sport” that would seem a natural stranger to emotion, it’s the discharging of firearms at clay pigeons.

The true Olympic spirit doesn’t really go back to classical times. Its roots are in the romping Victorian combination of bluffness and good humor. The modern Olympics were inspired by events that began in the Shropshire town of Wenlock in 1850, where an annual festival of “Olympian Games” sometimes included, along with tests of strength and speed meant to build health and character, such contests as blind wheelbarrow racing and the Gimcrack Race, during which riders were obliged to stop at various points to put on boots, have a drink, and smoke a cigar. So British are the Olympics that even the length of the marathon has nothing to do with the Olympia in Greece. Before 1908, a marathon was simply a long foot race of no fixed distance. But 26 miles and 385 yards was the distance between the 1908 starting line beneath the window of the royal nursery at Windsor Palace and the finish line in front of the King’s box at London’s White City Stadium.

In other ways, though, the Olympics are getting farther away from their modern British roots. The summer games once meant merely larking about. But as today’s Rogge’s gallery of Continental aristo-buffoons pushes the games to become ever more slick but hollow, pretentious yet meretricious, the whimsical, sturdy British character of the gathering recedes.

– Mr. Smith is a film reviewer for the New York Post.

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