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On the Olympics

July 30, 2012

If you have access to the internet or a television, you’re no doubt aware that the 2012 Summer Olympics started this weekend (and if you don’t, one wonders how you’re reading this). So, it’s once again time for Americans to spend several weeks pretending that they care about archery, badminton and fencing for as long as it looks like we might win a medal. Which isn’t to say anything about the merits of those events, just that the American public tends not to spend a lot of time thinking about them in the off years.

I don’t have any plans to do anything special for the Olympics. Timely reporting of current events isn’t really my thing, and besides, I’m afraid of running afoul of NBC’s US broadcast monopoly and the Olympics’ terms of use for linking. But I will be availing myself of some of the broadcasts of less popular sports, events which you never see on TV otherwise, yet may provide some interesting fodder for thought or for future posts.

During the last winter Olympics, the schedule arranged itself such that I spent a lot of time in front a TV that was featuring live broadcasts of the curling finals. And after the standard period of derision, I found myself strangely entranced by it. Curling is so unlike any sport that I have any real familiarity with, save maybe shuffleboard, which is in my mind indelibly associated with retirees on cruise ships rather than world-class athletic competitions. The rules themselves yes, and the physics behind them, but even moreso the actual means of interacting with the game was completely foreign. Brooms? Being used for sweeping? On ice? It hardly seems credible, and yet: there it was. I’m not going to claim that it was a particularly significant moment, but it was a broadening of horizons nonetheless, and one that I think I’m a better person for.

So my recommendation for this year’s Olympics is this: take advantage of this chance to explore the weird and unknown. Turn on the TV sometime outside of prime-time hours, and just watch what’s happening. Pick a sport in which you have no interest, or better yet, one you know absolutely nothing about. Find a hook to keep yourself watching for a little while. Try to figure out what’s going on. If you’re into the athletes’ tales of personal struggle and dedication, then roll with that. Or just look at the economy of motion, the specific actions honed through hours and years of practice. The Olympics feature some of the best in the world at what they’re doing, even if you don’t particularly care what they’re doing or why. There is some beauty to mastery of something, regardless of what that something is. Gymnastics and track and field, yes, but so too judo, dressage, noodle making, or piloting a tug boat. Look for the beauty in whatever they’re doing, and try to appreciate what it is about this thing that makes people want to dedicate their lives to it. It’s only a couple hours every four years.

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