The Full-Blown Spectacle of It All

A few summers ago, I wrote about the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games. In case you haven’t noticed, despite the best efforts of good people everywhere, they’re happening again. 

Rest assured, though, that things are different this time around, just as they are every time a new marketing campaign launches. If you doubt the differences between the two, consider these three things:

That was August, 2016, and this is February, 2018. 

Some of the people have different names.

Instead of running, jumping, and throwing things in the sweltering, soul-killing heat of Brazil, athletes from every corner of the globe are now hawking their wares in the frigid, soul-killing temperatures of South Korea.  

Here’s that bit from 2016.

* * *

As I write this, humanity is nearing the end of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games, or so I’ve heard in hushed whispers here and there.

Who am I kidding? The Rio Olympics is all I’ve been hearing about over the past few weeks, whether I was listening or not. Person A swam/ran/tumbled/threw something faster than Person B, so Person A gets a medal and Person B gets nothing. Or Person B gets a lesser medal, anyway. And the crowd goes wild. Unless, of course, Person A has a bad attitude, in which case everything is different. Still, the crowd goes wild.

On top of that, in sports (or sport, if you’re really posh) there appears to be a fuzzy line between having a bad attitude and exhibiting a strong personality. As a result, one athlete may end up being universally hated, while another goes viral. I mean electronically viral, of course, not biologically, but since the games were in Rio de Janeiro, that’s a bit less straightforward this year.

What I’m saying is, it’s complicated.

The Olympics is everywhere, and people love it. One of my aunts knows the name and family history of every American swimmer, volleyball player, and racewalker. She tells stories about them. In fact, I misunderstood one of her recent anecdotes, having stumbled in a minute late, and thought she was talking about a secret family member I’d never met. I only figured it out when I realized I wasn’t related to anyone who’d shot a musket after sprinting fifteen-hundred meters. Not in the Olympics, anyway.

Judging from the sheer density of the Olympics coverage, NBC might just as well have uncovered footage of Stanley Kubrick faking the moon landing. Morning, noon, and night, you can rest assured there’s something Olympic-related on television. The appeal is broad enough that I’ve been expecting my dog to trot into our living room at some point and try to discuss the history of women’s beach volleyball with me.

To be fair, though, it’s not just sports hogging our cultural bandwidth. The Olympics began just a week or so after the Democratic National Convention, which sprang like a loud, tedious Athena from the head of the equally noisy Republican National Convention the week before. If I wanted to watch people shout nonsense at each other and act like children—which I’m not necessarily ruling out—I’d just go to a Mardi Gras parade.

But don’t worry, the conventions will all have been worth it, or at least that’s what the organizers would have us believe. Speeches were delivered, promises made, words re-defined, history revised, all in the name of, well, something. It has to be something big, right? Otherwise, all the hoopla would be meaningless.

Not really, because these things are all spectacles, and we love them. They’re huge and loud, they have lots of flashy bright things, and they inspire us. We adore karaoke shows like America’s Got Talent and American Idol, we thrive on programming like American Ninja Warrior and Everybody’s Favorite Spartan (that’s a thing, right?), and we eat up Super Bowls and NASCAR races.

Spectacles like these leave me wondering what I’m missing. For one thing, I don’t like crowds, so that’s a definite problem, and I don’t enjoy sports. To me, watching them is like having a tooth pulled with no anesthesia, only more painful. Chances are good that one of my ancestors was that jerky guy who refused to go down to the Colosseum to watch grappling gladiators or thrilling re-enactments of legendary sea battles. Pageantry and extravaganzas don’t inspire me. Instead, they make me want to spend more time with my dog. As long as he’s not intent on discussing volleyball.

Here’s the good news: This year’s run of spectacle isn’t close to being over. The Olympics is almost done, but we in the U.S. have a couple more months of political brawling, during which we watch our neighbors, co-workers, and family members throw decorum to the gutter and argue to within millimeters of their lives, as they break out every straw man, broad generalization, and slippery slope argument imaginable, all while snobbily accusing others of committing the same fallacies.

As for the rest of the world, congratulations. You’ll get to watch it all, even if only from a distance.

You’re welcome.

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