Blame It On Rio
Once every four years, we watch over-the-top displays of jingoism, flag-waving, and fear. For two weeks, we get beginning-to-end coverage of celebrities, big crowds and boisterous cheering, with accusations of corruption and cheating thrown into the mix. It’s a special time when the average American sits up and takes notice of things he only cares about once every four years.
I intended to use the paragraph above for a piece about the political conventions, but then I got lazy, then I got distracted, and, well, the conventions were over and I never wrote the piece. The cool thing is, I can use the same paragraph for this piece, about the Olympics.
This year, the Games are being held in Rio de Janeiro. Now, I’ve never been there, so I may not thoroughly understand Brazilian culture, but I always thought of Rio as a fairly glamorous place, where everyone is either naked on a beach or strumming a guitar. Prior to this year, the only horrible thing I knew about Rio was that it was the setting for a bad Michael Caine movie.
But to hear the media tell it, Rio is an apocalyptic wasteland. According to my Facebook feed, Rio is nothing but bad water, crime, and poverty. Apparently, it’s like a gigantic version of Flint, Michigan, but with samba music.
The water is supposedly so polluted there that they ought to just judge the aquatic events by lab tests, and the athlete with the lowest bacteria count gets the gold. You know the situation is bad when world-class athletes resort to ancient, unproven folk remedies to offset the effects of swimming laps in toxic sludge.
It’s hard for me to picture Rio as a dystopian hellscape, with a struggling economy, broken infrastructure, rampant street crime, and dirty politics. I’m sure if these Games are successful, it will bolster the hopes for future Olympiads in Kabul, or Mogadishu.
Given its challenges, how exactly did Rio think it could pull this off? How did they think this would work? I would have loved to have been at the Municipal Chamber meeting the first time someone pitched the idea:
Mr. Mayor, what if we had the Olympics here? Yes sir, the Summer ones. Yes, I imagine there would be some swimming . . . No, I wouldn’t swim in the water here, sir. Never mind.
There was actually talk of moving or rescheduling this year’s Games, and frankly, I wouldn’t care if they cancelled the Olympics, as I’ve never been much of a fan.
I’ve always liked the opening ceremony, though–the ‘Parade of Nations.’ First of all, I was in marching band in high school, so I have a thing for parades. This one is always spectacular, in a shiny, Disney, Epcot sort of way.
Also, I think one of the most valuable lessons the Games can teach us is on display in the Parade of Nations–and that’s a geography lesson. Without the Olympics, the only way the typical American would ever learn about geography would be if Lin-Manuel Miranda were to write a hip-hop musical about it.
It was moving to see the Refugee Olympic Team, but it wasn’t a very accurate portrayal of the refugee experience, since they were actually welcomed in. On the other end of the comfort spectrum, Team USA wore Ralph Lauren blazers and looked like the cover of the catalog for a private school in New England.
Watching the Parade this year led me to research a little more about some of the lesser-known countries. In music terms, I like to think of them as ‘indie’ countries. Everyone has to listen to the big, corporate-controlled, ‘major-label’ countries, but sometimes you want to hear something a little less mainstream.
Whenever I watch the actual sports part of the Olympics, I definitely have some favorite countries. For example, I always root a little bit for the North Korean team, just because I have the impression that ‘no medal’ probably means a re-education camp for any athlete who brings shame to the Dear Leader.
I’m also a big fan of the small island nations, who are only able to send a few representatives to the Games. We should cheer for them now, because with climate change, it won’t be long before people from island countries will only be able to train for underwater events.
Eight countries were only able to send two athletes to Rio each (Bhutan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Nauru, Somalia, and Swaziland!). But the loneliest place in Brazil right now is probably the apartment that houses the delegation from Tuvalu. You know, that one guy.
It seems that Tuvalu sent three athletes to the 2012 London Games, two runners and a weightlifter, but this year? Just the one runner. Hmmmm . . . Did the other runner and the weightlifter miss their flight back? Did they get blotto in some pub and just decide to stay?
Whatever the circumstances of the disappearance of the Tuvalan Olympians (which could also be the working title for the next Indiana Jones flick), I’m rooting for the guy who’s still with Team Tuvalu, Etimoni Timuani.
Now some you may be confusing Tuvalu with Vanuatu, even though Vanuatu is obviously 962 miles southeast of Tuvalu, and has two hundred thousand people instead of Tuvalu’s ten thousand.
Vanuatu was able to send four representatives. I’m sure they’re all very good, but they don’t have to deal with the pressure of being Etimoni Timuani.
Hey, Etimoni! We noticed that you run pretty fast, and we’ve decided we’d like you to represent the entire country. Yeah, all our hopes and dreams, and since we only get mentioned every four years, you really need to do well. You know, for the whole country.
Tuvalu is so far off the grid that their telephone book–for the entire country–is online here. Regarding that, I have some advice: don’t just randomly call people in The Tuvalu phone book because “it’d be cool to talk to someone there.” Polo Makolo was not amused, to the extent that the U.S. may technically be at war now with Tuvalu.
Another plucky country that gets my support is Monaco, because they’ve been in the Olympic nineteen times and have won zero medals. I mean at some point, can’t the IOC at least toss them a Susan Lucci honorary medal? Turns out that this year, seventy-five countries at the Games have come up empty with the entire world watching, but to be fair, some of them are tiny.
You have to wonder about Nepal. I’m sure every four years, they get to the host City and they’re always disappointed that there are no sherpa events scheduled. (In fact, I know that Nepal is represented this year in archery, swimming, track and field, taekwando, and judo, so no angry emails.)
If we can’t feel sorry for the Nepalese, how about Andorra? They’ve been to ten Summer and eleven Winter Olympics and all they’ve brought back are some souvenir towels. I hate to dash the dreams of an entire country, but maybe you guys are more of a scholarly people, Andorra.
I definitely feel sorry for Bosnia and Herzegovina–one country, two names, six Olympics, zero medals. I’m sure on the flight home, Bosnia always blames Herzegovina, and Herzegovina blames Bosnia, but every four years they do the Olympics, like an estranged married couple who still go to functions together to keep up appearances.
Since politics is always part of the Olympics, I think we should take it a step further. What if the Olympics were like a real-life version of the board game Risk? What if we all agreed that, in a match between two countries, the winner gets political control over the country it defeated?
Suddenly, that handball semifinal between Italy and France has a little more riding on it! If I know that, by beating France at handball, Italy would get to rule over France for the next four years, I would absolutely DVR the match!
If we keep this idea rolling, let’s say that the countries with the highest medal counts get to be the UN Security Council. The hold their seats for four years. You want a seat at the big table? Your country better start training some synchronized swimmer
This will also resolve global conflicts without a single missile launch. If Kim Jong-Un wants to conquer South Korea, North Korea had better be prepared to beat the South at badminton. Whichever Korea wins, a decades-old conflict is resolved, with zero political prisoners or bloodshed. Likewise, if Russia wants to force their way into any more Balkan states, they’ll have to beat them in the high jump first.
At the end of the Games, if your country beats another country’s overall medal count, your country gets to conquer that country. Simple! This gives a lot more incentive to the athletes, and gives some of the smaller countries a chance to feel powerful for a while (“The water polo results are in, and until 2020, the Canadian people will be governed be governed by . . . Lesotho!”)
In addition the changing the stakes of the Games, I think the list of Olympic sports could use some revision. As a starting point, let’s get rid of any sports that you can play in your backyard, so we can eliminate badminton. Put it this way–if a game is most commonly discussed over watercress sandwiches in the Hamptons, it doesn’t belong in the Olympics. For similar reasons, I would get rid of golf. Otherwise, we’re just opening the door to Olympic croquet.
Any sport you might see in an episode of Baywatch is, by definition, unsuitable for the Olympics, so we can say goodbye to beach volleyball. Also, cycling events always seem less than Olympian to me, because no matter how fast you’re pedaling, you’re still riding a bike, and I used to ride a bike. If I can say “I used to” before the name of a sport, it’s less impressive to me. I’ve never said “I used to canoe slalom,” so to me, that’s a sport I would watch.
I don’t think equestrian events should be in the Olympics, because from what I can tell, the horses do most of the work, and the riders get the medals. That doesn’t seem fair. Lastly, I would get rid of all the shooting sports. It’s not that they don’t require skill and athleticism, it’s just that, right at this moment in history, there are enough people wandering around with guns.
Honestly, if the International Olympic Committee and NBC want higher ratings, they should look to the past. Among the competitions in the ancient Greek Olympic Games was a fun little diversion called ‘pankration.’ Wikipedia describes it as “an empty-hand submission sport with scarcely any rules.” The athletes used techniques from boxing and wrestling, in addition to kicking, holding, and choking. “The only things not acceptable were biting and gouging out the opponent’s eyes.”
Now that was entertainment! It was like a pre-Christian Era version of mixed martial arts, or the UFC with commemorative pottery. If the Olympics brought pankration back, it would honor tradition, while drawing a whole new audience. For my money, pankration should be the only Olympic sport.
Pankration would be a perfect way to level the playing field, so that smaller countries without a lot of resources would be competitive. With only one official sport, tiny countries with limited cash would be able to bid to host the Olympics for a change, because they would only need one venue. And teams wouldn’t need funding for state-of-the-art equipment, because as long as they had enough loincloths to go around, they’d be in!
Finally, ratings would be huge, even if most of the coverage were on Spike TV. You can keep the opening ceremony, keep the Parade of Nations, but when it comes time for the competition, you would get to watch one sport–one event with highly trained athletes beating each other into submission, hand-to-hand. No eye-gouging, though. That would be bad sportsmanship.