The Olympics are finally over--if only they were over for good

It isn't right to judge strength as better than good wisdom. -- Xenophanes (570-475 BCE)

It took the Greeks to invent the idea of something as ridiculous as the Olympics, and maybe it will be the Greeks who do the world a favor and usher in the beginning of the end of an outdated, excessive pageant that lacks only lions eating athletes to make it as bizarre as the Roman contribution to spectacle.

Mercifully, we have a two-year break before we're faced with more games, but my question is: Why continue this preposterous paean to excess? Why, when the planet is teetering on the edge of cultural and climatological collapse (not to mention increased economic dislocations and, oh, did I mention random acts of terrorism?) do we persist with what George Monbiot, in a different context, called a "voluble industry of denial?"

The Olympics are not about athletics; they are about ego and immoderation. What honor attends a nation with the largest percentage of disposable income that is consistently favored as the one most likely to win the most medals? Instead of playing chauvinistic national anthems during the medal ceremonies, it would be more honest if, at all future games, we hear the hip-hop song, "My Milkshake's Better Than Yours," from the sound system.

Earning a gold medal is not necessarily the equivalent of being the best athlete in a given sport. (And is it really possible to define "best?" One sprinter may have the quickest time, but another a better stride.) What it really means--in some countries, though not all--is that for whatever reason, the athlete has the privilege of indulging an inclination to spend hours a day in pursuit of a fantasy centered on winning, on standing on a podium decked out in heavy metal while the ego screams, "FEED ME!"

For other young people, who do not have the mixed fortune of coming from the affluent landmasses of Europe or North America, a gold medal may be less about ego and more about economics. It is not unusual for winners to be showered with governmental beneficence in the form of money or housing if they bring home the gold.

But even in wealthy nations, there's the poor inner-city kid who believes the only way out is through acquiring the glitz and fame accompanying success in sports. And let's not forget the obscene millions mega-athletes garner for simply spewing endorsements over the airwaves and linking their image to some product.

So what the Olympics are really about is prestige and money: national pride (a dangerous idea whose time is long past) and ill-spent lucre that can put countries deeper in debt. (By some estimates, it will take Greece 10 years to pay off the debt accumulated from this year's games.)

None of this is to say that sporting events are not a good thing; like everything else, they have their place. Contrary to the belief systems and behavior patterns of some (especially the male of the species--you know who you are), sports is neither our reason for being, nor should it be what sustains us as we make our bumbling way through this quirky phenomenon called life.

But for what seems like an eternity, every two years, we're asked to push the pause button on our lives and dedicate each waking moment to either watching, discussing or reading about the Olympics. I actually heard some newscaster ask whomever he was interviewing, "What was your favorite Olympic moment?" This is not too far afield from third-graders just getting to know each other asking, "What's your favorite color?"

It is possible that some kid at the tender age of 3 or 4, or whenever it is children decide to make sports the focus of their lives, is so enthralled with some athletic endeavor that s/he eventually dedicates hours to the pursuit of personal excellence. This is all good. My hunch is the best athletes care less about winning and more about the process, about how their bodies feel when they are engaged in a good game and how they feel afterward.

Sure, winning is fun, primarily because it's a bit of an ego rush (except in the case of the Olympics, where it's an ego tsunami). But when athletes are so obsessed with medals or first place or being "best," or so desperate to win for economic reasons that they are willing to risk their long-term health by ingesting performance-enhancing drugs, it's clear the system needs to be re-evaluated.

The self-inflicted abuse of alpha athletes; nations dumping billions of dollars into an enterprise with questionable, if any, long-term benefits for their citizens; and the perpetuation of the notion of global competition are all good reasons why the Olympic games should have disappeared from the planet about the same time people stopped believing in Zeus and his cohorts.

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