EVERY FOUR YEARS I marvel all over again at those bodies honed like precision instruments to defy the bounds of human ability, those people flying with graceful force over hurdles, off diving boards, into somersaults in midair, speeding down tracks, slicing through water. The athletes’ bodies are relentlessly particular, concrete, personal, and tangible: the reality of flesh, of heart, of effort, of this tense face, that muscled arm, that DNA, and that training and determination. This is why it’s so peculiar that the Olympics suspend these bodies in an abstracted superstructure of nationalism, as though this feat of balance really had something to do with Austria, that burst of power really represented Japan.
The elegant sinewiness of a sprinter, the coiled power of a diver, has little to do with the abstraction called nationhood, except that the sprinter or diver is being put forward as the public face of his or her nation — or the mask. There are other faces to nationhood. We live in an era where truth is most often found by looking away from the spectacle presented to us. Corporations consciously choose their masks: BP claims to care about climate change; Chevron had its “People Do” advertisements of the 1990s, in which the oil giant advertised its noble deeds (often obligatory environmental mitigations that cost a tiny fraction of the company’s earnings). Chevron doesn’t want you to see that the toxic emissions of its Richmond, California, refineries make the mostly poor, nonwhite people living nearby seriously ill. Or its complicity in human rights violations in Africa, Asia, and South America. Then there’s Nike, one of many apparel manufacturers that would rather you think about the celebrity spokesperson or anonymous Adonis than the sweatshop workers who, in all their bodily misery and deprivation, have infinitely more to do with the product. In the same way, nations have infinitely more to do with prisons, laws, and foreign and domestic policies than athletes.
Sports bring us the human body as a manifestation of nature — not just the elegant forms of athletes, but their animal ability to move through air and water. At the Olympics, these bodies are co-opted by a political culture that wants to be seen as natural, legitimate, stirring, beautiful. Beautiful bodies are just one kind of nature that nations like to claim. After all, this country invented the idea of “national” parks and claims the sublimity of the Grand Canyon (which preceded it by hundreds of millions of years) and all those purple mountains’ majesty as part of its identity. Corporations too like pristine landscapes, particularly for advertisements in which an SUV perches on some remote ledge, or a high-performance car zips along a winding road through landscape splendor. Few car commercials portray gridlock or even traffic — that your car is just a car among cars — let alone the vehicle’s impact on those pristine environments. Of course most of us have become pretty well versed in critiquing advertisements as such — we assume they are coverups if not outright lies. But the Olympics have not been subjected to the same level of critique.
On August 8, the Beijing Olympic Games will begin, and television will bring us weeks of the human body at the height of health, beauty, discipline, power, and grace. It will be a thousand-hour advertisement, in some sense, for the participating nations as represented by athletes with amazing abilities. In reality, the athletes will be something of a mask for what each nation really stands for, and this year the Olympics as a whole will be as much a coverup as, say, the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, which came hot on the heels of the Tlaltelolco Plaza massacre of students, or the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which gave the Nazis legitimacy as they turned Germany into an efficient totalitarian death factory. Ironically, the 2008 summer Olympics begin on the twentieth anniversary of the 8888 (for 8/8/1988) Burma uprising against the brutal military dictatorship that has controlled that country, with crucial backing from China, for more than four decades now. The Chinese government is also busy terrorizing Tibetans protesting for religious freedom and liberation of their colonized country; it is also the main protector of the Sudanese government carrying out a holocaust in Darfur.
It serves the nations of the world to support the exquisitely trained Olympian bodies, and it often serves their more urgent political and economic agendas to subject other bodies to torture, mutilation, and violent death, as well as to look away from quieter deaths from deprivation and pollution. In the struggles for land and resources — for Chinese control of Tibet, and for the petroleum fields of Sudan and the timber and mineral wealth of Burma — bodies are mowed down like weeds. The celebrated athletic bodies exist in some sort of tension with the bodies that are being treated as worthless and disposable.
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, two young African Americans from San Jose State University won first and third place in the two-hundred-meter dash, gold medalist Tommie Smith setting a world record in the process. On the podium, receiving their medals alongside Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, they gave the Black Power salute. Bronze medalist John Carlos wore beads that signified the lynchings of his fellow African Americans. They were shoeless to represent black poverty. Norman joined them in wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. Their actions suggested that great bodily gifts could not be separated from bodily suffering, or conscience. It was a beautiful moment, one of the iconic moments of the 1960s. As athletes, they had represented their country magnificently; as human beings they had testified to the complexity of that nation and their place in it.
In response, International Olympics Committee President Avery Brundage banished the two men from the rest of the games and a spokesperson called their act “a deliberate and violent breach of the Olympic spirit.” The Olympic spirit by this measure insists that athletes be bodies without minds and hearts. But the insistence that athletes not “politicize” the Olympics is really an assertion that the politics of the Olympics be determined by governments, not movements and individuals, most particularly not participating athletes. When authorities say we should not politicize something, they mean that the politics of the status quo should not be questioned. Fortunately, people nowadays have become more skeptical of masks and more sophisticated at connecting the dots.
The global route of the Olympic torch this spring was interrupted again and again by human rights protests, so that rather than a triumphal tour, the relays seemed to be a flight from principle and responsibility with activists in hot pursuit. The athletes, too, have refused to be silent. Some joined Team Darfur, “an inter-national coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness about and bringing an end to the crisis in Darfur” cofounded in 2006 by speed skater Joey Cheek and water poloist Brad Greiner. This will be the invisible competition at the games: between the official desire to strip athletes of any meaning their country does not superimpose on them and the desire of some athletes to give true meaning to their acts.
Bodies in peak condition performing with everything they’ve got are an image of freedom, as are pristine landscapes like Yosemite and the Tetons. But the reality of freedom only exists when these phenomena aren’t deployed to cover up other bodies that are cringing, starving, bleeding, or dying, other places that are clearcut, strip-mined, and contaminated. Television coverage of the summer Olympics probably won’t cut away from those sleek athletes to the charred bodies of massacred villagers and the anguished faces of young gang-rape victims in Darfur, or the bloodied heads of young monks and uncounted corpses and prisoners in Burma and Tibet. But the associations between the two are crucial to our sense of compassion, and of what it means to be a part of a global community.