Saturday, February 27, 2010


She has a point. But how much you want to bet that this young woman wouldn't have bothered with the sign if "Canada" hadn't been "defeated" at the Winter Olympics? I did a cursory search and am not sure which defeat this refers to. Maybe hockey? Eat my ice chips, Canuckistan! It's not so different from the fancy that the US invasion of Iraq was a strike against Saddam Hussein personally.

Dave Zirin was in a bit of a tizzy at The Nation a couple of weeks ago because Christopher Hitchens had pooped on Sports. I respect Zirin and have learned a lot from his writing, but here I have to part company with him, even at the cost of agreeing with Hitchens. "Yes there is much to detest in the world of sports," Zirin wrote. "But why then is it also such a source of solace, joy, and - heaven forefend – fun? Hitchens doesn't care to explore this question." Hell: public executions, bear-baiting, gladiatorial contests, the ducking stool, and feeding Christians to the lions used to be sources of solace, joy, and fun, not just to the "rabble" but to the better classes. That's not an argument, Mr. Zirin.

I'd say that "sport" is less the problem than competition itself. I'm not the first to notice that the vaunted Olympic spirit of transcending petty nationalism is bogus, that there's hardly even a pretense of it in the structure of the whole business, let alone the fans and the sports media. The pursuit of excellence is an excellent thing, and I'm as happy as anyone else to admire the photos of trained, buff bodies that are part of Olympic publicity.

I can't help wondering if the human cost is worth it, though, apart from the financial ruin the Olympics bring to the cities they prey upon every four years. The stress of competition at that level, following on years of incredibly demanding preparation, the elimination of large numbers of competitors along the way, and the rapid downhill slide after the Games, even for the winners -- it seems to me like using up a lot of people for not very much, but it's not for me to decide, is it? I'm particularly haunted by a video I saw some years ago of the men's diving competition. Even on the diving board, and immediately after diving, the divers had to have television cameras focused on their faces in closeup. It must be hard enough to perform in front of huge crowds, both in person and via television around the world, without having one's every facial tic analyzed by sports journalists who have to enliven the dead air somehow. (And as the Tiger Woods scandal has confirmed yet again, sports journalists are not the sharpest pencils in the box.)

Anyway, yes, a decent health care system counts for more than successful athletes. A country that provides health care, food, housing, and education for its least citizens might then be able to justify the cost of prepping athletes for international competition, if international competition still seemed worth bothering with. Despite my personal lack of interest in sports, though, I'm not opposed to exercise and play. Those would be included in the category of health care, of course. People will probably also want organized, social, group-oriented play, and that also is fine with me. What I'm objecting to is competition, especially the extremely high-stakes kind of competition involved in professional and Olympic sports. There are other ways for people to find solace, joy, and fun than such wasteful and destructive pastimes.