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9 August 2008
The Olympics as cultural artifact

The Olympic Games, this year and every year, seem to invite a recitation of numbers: medal counts, athlete counts, audience counts, viewer counts, and dollar (and yuan) counts. Ages (14-year-old gymnasts and 41-year-old swimmers), times (seconds of sprinting, hours of television), and scores (the higher the better in some events, the lower the better in others). But what we tend to remember best about the Games are single moments, even single images, and the stories behind them. Well, we also remember—in the USA at least—John Williams’s iconic trumpet theme, composed in 1984, that produces in most of us a Pavlovian desire to sit down and prepare to be amazed.

The Olympic Games, with representation from nearly every country in the world, are among that relatively small number of cultural goods that bid fair to have truly worldwide cultural effects. How do they shape our understanding of the world—and the understanding of fellow human beings half a world away? Take a break—perhaps while your favorite event is quarantined in NBC’s tape delay—and contribute to our conversation.

1. What do the Olympics assume about the way the world is?

I have to admit, my favorite part of the Olympics are the dramatic narratives about individual athletes. That’s one reason we’re willing to give up Grey’s Anatomy and other reruns to watch people do laps. American TV vignettes of this sort project the belief that people are inherently good, overcome external trials, and go on to persevere and succeed of their own will, without outside help. I wonder if this is true in broadcasts in other countries?


There is this “bringing together” of cultures, races and views for a few weeks that makes us believe that it is indeed possible for everyone to live together in harmony. The Olympic Village comes across to me as a blueprint for how it “could be” if only we’d put all differences aside.

Sheryl Kenoyer

The Olympics assume that the world universally values athletic success. Why are there so few muslim athletes? Because of the relatively low prestige of athletics (as opposed to the mind) in muslim cultures.

Paul Grant

Paul, that is a fascinating observation . . . which makes me wonder why athletics is so valued in other cultures, or at least what is the history of divergence in the Muslim (Arab?) world from other cultures in this respect.

Andy Crouch

First, it seems to assume that we all desire unity without understanding fully what it actually takes to achieve it. I doubt it will be through the spirit of competition. Secondly, the thing that is to be most celebrated, what ties us all together as humanity is the strength of the human will to achieve. We can evolve and get better, faster, stronger.

Laurence Tom

Laurence, that raises an interesting question . . . what will happen in sports like swimming if and when we reach the point where no records are broken—where the swimmers are always behind the computer-generated green line? Will we lose interest in those games?

Andy Crouch

That’s right Andy! I think the Olympics and the glory of sports assumes that we can continue to make progress and that the future is optimistic because human achievement is unstoppable. I think the human will is incredibly strong but in all our best efforts we do reach a point where we eventually fall short. We saw that with our track and field team and in the world we see that even with our best humanitarian efforts. We’re simply limited but of course this shouldn’t stop us from doing good and seeking to create.
To answer the question of reaching the point when we can’t get break those records anymore I think we’ll change the game to make it more challenging and exciting. We’ll make it work, somehow.

Laurence Tom
2. What do the Olympics assume about the way the world should be?

An assumption that comes to mind is that the world should be a level playing field, and any person from any nation has the opportunity and potential to be the best in an endeavor on the world stage.

3. What do the Olympics make possible?

Well, here’s my first thought, after an all too brief time watching men’s gymnastics last night. The Games make possible a sense of awe at human capacities. Over and over our family gasped at a particularly daring set of moves on the high bar or the pommel horse—things you just would not think would be possible, but which were executed with precision and flair. And (by necessity) these feats of human strength and grace are performed by young men barely out of their teens, if that. These events give us a window into what is possible for human beings—if they are willing to embrace the disciplines that excellence requires.

Of course we also saw the ice packs on the shoulders and witnessed the grimaces of people who are pushing their bodies to their absolute limit, and likely beyond. But that probably should lead to a reflection posted in the “impossible” section below . . .

Andy Crouch

Yes, regarding the limits of the possibility.  Last night, my wife’s family held a family Olympics (ages ranged from infant to 50’s).  I won the long jump with a jump of 11’ 1’‘, which seemed pretty far…until I consider Bob Beamon’s record jump of 29’ 2’’

Mike Hickerson

Dan Steinberg from the Washington Post ( is actually far more insightful on this than I could ever be:

“. . . Not to make chop suey out of chopsticks, but the Olympics really is a whole bunch of people agreeing to ignore the obvious absurdities—the grown men jumping on trampolines, the little girls swinging on bars, the inflatable panda mascots dancing with thunderstick-wielding cheerleaders to the soundtrack of “High School Musical”—and to agree that, for some reason, the Olympics matter.

It’s like what Iceland handball captain Olafur Stefansson told me when I asked whether people in his country actually believe in magic elves. “It’s not so much a matter of believing in the regular sense of the word, it’s more of enjoying the possibility of it actually existing,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter whether somebody judges you or not for having that possibility in your mind. Because it’s a funny possibility, and it enlightens your life and makes it more colorful.”

Substitute “the Olympic ideals” for “magic elves,” and you could probably use that quote as a PowerPoint slide at the IOC’s next seven-star retreat.”

—Christopher Hickey
4. What do the Olympics make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

The Olympics make it difficult to separate the political and apolitical.  Most of the time time an American can watch a MLB baseball game or NFL football game and not be conscious of politics.  However, the international nature of the Olympics makes it next to impossible to overlook the presence of politics.  This seems to be playing out on an almost daily basis at the Beijing Olympics.

David Swanson
5. What new culture is created in response?

National sports academies and organizations, such as the USOC’s Colorado Springs facility, China’s national sports program, or the Eastern Bloc’s machine of the 60’s and 70’s without the Olympics.  The Olympics’ incorporation of national identity encourage these programs as a point of national pride, while the Olympics’ athletic diversity encourages the identification of elite athletes even in obscure “unpopular” sports.  As a great example, the Wall Street Journal, over the weekend, featured the story of a Chinese weightlifter who entered the national sports academy at the age of 11, and the mix of opportunities both lost and gained for her and her family:

Mike Hickerson

I’ve been impressed by the awesome architecture the Chinese have put in for the Olympics, the most obvious examples being the Bird’s Nest and the Cube. What’s been more interesting is that the Chinese were willing to “outsource” the architecture to internationally-recognized, non-Chinese architects.

The Opening Ceremonies, too, for all their controversy, contained just a ton of breathtaking new cultural goods. It was possibly the best “live” show I’ve ever seen, and even kindled some very dormant Chinese ethnic pride inside me.

—Jennifer Lien