Near Yellow Mountain

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Olympic Lessons

The last few days of the London Olympics are upon us. I took the afternoon off to watch the gold medal women’s soccer match between the US and Japan. Four years ago, we were living in China and watched the US soccer team live. We saw an elderly couple in the crowded stadium who were obviously unable to find their seats and asked if they needed help. They proudly told us that their granddaughter Hope was the US goalie. They noticed our driver Philip who was attending with us and asked if he was “real Chinese”. We said yes and they asked if we could take their picture with him. Philip understood what was happening and I asked under my breath if it was Ok. The ever affable Philip nodded yes but pointed at the elderly man's NBC Sports cap.  I told the couple a picture was fine but asked if Phillip could wear Grandpa’s “NBC Sports” hat for the picture. Done deal. 

As a boy watching the Olympics, I never imagined that one day I would live in China and Japan and attend Olympics held in both countries. The Olympics are for obvious reasons most thought of as an epic sports event but for me they are also a window on changes in the world.

I remember every Olympics since 1968 - the summer games in Mexico City and the winter in Grenoble, France. We watched in “vivid” black and white. Color TV did not arrive in my house until several years after - too late for the Munich games in 1972 but before Montreal in 1976. Coverage was very basic those days - several hours over the two weeks compared with the daily six channel cable coverage in our house for the current games. If we miss an event on TV, we can always check the Internet.

When I watched my first Olympics, the Soviet block was the enemy but not yet dubbed the “evil empire”. From the perspective of my hometown, “the Russians” donned the black hats no matter what color their uniforms were. China did not participate in the Olympics in the 1960’s and 70’s so the “People’s Republic” was not on my sports radar until much later although I heard rumors about their ping pong and badminton prowess. 

When I think of the Mexico City games, I have one enduring image - Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the medal podium after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meters. Each stood on the podium wearing black socks with no shoes. They raised their arms revealing black gloves on the fists. The gesture was incorrectly interpreted as a black power salute when in reality the two were drawing attention to the plight of poor black people in the United States. They called it a human rights salute. As an 11 year old living in a small town in upstate New York, I had never met a black person. I had no idea why they were raising their fists. Of course, I had seen pictures from the racial conflicts in the south on the news but the images were not real to me. Tommie Smith and John Carlos made them real and caused me think about things happening in the US beyond my protected small town environment.

Four years later, I watched with excitement as Frank Shorter won the marathon in Munich but that was overshadowed by the tragic murder of the Israeli athletes in the Olympic village. The ‘72 games brought the reality of terrorism into my living room and caused me to read many books about the holocaust. The lessons from 1968 and 1972 did not dampen my enthusiasm for the Olympic games but I began to realize that bringing the world together for sport had a dark side.

The next Olympics that had an impact were the 1980 Moscow games - the US stayed home which I thought was a cop out. I was freshly out of college and America was at a low ebb - high unemployment, inflation, an energy crisis and a President from Georgia that seemed like a nice, old man out of his depth. Thousands of athletes who had sacrificed for years for a chance to represent the US had their efforts come to naught by one man’s decision. As leader of the “free world”, the US decision brought many other countries into the boycott and proved that the ideals of the games could be managed by politicians. 

The Olympics of the mid and late 1980s in LA and Seoul seemed to mirror the rise of “corporate sports”. We now had official Olympic toothpaste, peanuts and airlines. Logos were everywhere. The Olympics had survived the stormy waters of politics but were drowning in sponsorship. My interest and enthusiasm for the actual competition was unabated but I didn’t like the “official” packaging.

The 1990s brought full professionalism to the games. The “dream team” of NBA players at the ‘92 games was a disappointment. I would rather have seen our best graduating college players try their hand against the increasingly strong national teams from Europe and South America but my thinking was in the minority.  

Over the years I visited many summer and winter Olympic venues in the US, Germany, Norway, etc but I got my first live Olympic experience in Nagano in 1998. In general, the winter Olympics are lower key and less commercial than the summer games. I had a great time in the Japanese Alps. The Olympic atmosphere and Japanese hospitality was hard to beat. I left Nagano feeling good about the Olympics. 

We moved to Japan in 2000 and watched the Sydney and Athens games on Japanese TV - a different perspective for sure. I missed the US coverage - the human interest stories and variety of the coverage.  My lack of interest in what Japanese TV featured - judo, ping pong, etc made me long for overproduced US coverage which exists because of all the corporate sponsorship. I started thinking that I was an “Olympic hypocrite” - watching Japanese TV coverage of the Olympics made me realize that if it took corporate sponsorship to get me a decent viewing experience I could make that trade.

We moved to China in 2005 and lived through the build up to the Beijing games. The Olympics were China’s coming out party as a world power. Every detail was managed. A weather control bureau was created with the objective to ensure that it rained just before the games to clear the air. I had customers that were forced to relocate factories for the sake of the games. Taxi drivers were ordered to learn English by 2008, foreigners were enlisted to point out bad English signs in public places. Local residents who liked to wear Pajamas around town in the summer weather were ordered not to and spitting on the streets was ‘banned”. Of course most of the programs were miserable failures -  most of the malevolent Beijing taxi drivers did not learn even basic English, the bad English signs were largely unscathed and there was no noticeable reduction is spitting. On the other hand, most of my Chinese friends could not have been more proud of the Opening Ceremonies and most of what happened during those two weeks in August 2008. The Chinese felt having a successful Olympics validated them as a member of the first world. That should tell you something.