Just when I was feeling downright cheerful over the hours I’d devoted to television this weekend — watching the 2010 Olympics opening ceremonies (wasn’t that W.O. Mitchell piece, with the kid running and flying over the prairies, terrific?) and the ski moguls and the figure skating, along comes Christopher Hitchens with “Fool’s Gold,” a rant hot enough to melt the remaining snow of Whistler, B.C.
Well, the man can certainly write and I enjoy seeing his skills in action as much as the manuevering of an Apolo Anton Ohno in speed skating. There’s a lot of truth to what he says as well. But I don’t think he’s the winner this round.
Patriotisms and loyalties of any kind can easily become excessive, even dangerous, and we all know that, and I have to say too that I’ve often wished broadcasters of the Olympics wouldn’t focus so much on the athletes of their particular country — just highlight whoever is great at what they do, no matter where they’re from. Certainly the chatter about the somewhat quixotic quest for Canadian gold might be tamped down here. But still, I think there’s so much more and so much better to the stories unfolding in Vancouver than the criticisms Hitchens lobs at them. To watch the Olympics is to watch one small and fascinating drama after the next, and to find in each some pleasure, or sympathy, or even inspiration.
Last night NBC, the American station covering the winter games, was running some minutes behind CTV, the Canadian station. After we’d watched the Alexandre Bilodeau win in the moguls competition on CTV, we turned to watch it at NBC, to see how they would “call” it. Would they focus on, and commiserate over, the American skier, now bumped to bronze?
No, they were equally excited with all the elements of the story, including the motivation Alexandre gets from his 28-year-old brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy and, Alexandre says, never complains, as well as the fact that this was Canada’s first gold on home turf. And, it was the most perfectly executed run of the evening! It’s a kind of performance art and it’s hard not to be thrilled about that.
I probably couldn’t ski my way down a bunny hill without falling, but I like to watch the Olympic games. I’m amazed at the dedication and training and keen spirits of so many athletes. I find the human dramas that unfold compelling, the skills on display simply remarkable. From me on my couch to Hitchens and his “Fool’s Gold” I say: let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
I think it’s the stories that bring events like the Olympics to life. Under all the hype are real people experiencing life as we all know it. In a way, then, their success is our success, even if only for a nail-biting 24 seconds down a moguls run.
I just read your “Let it snow” piece and wanted to let you know that I share your enjoyment of the 2010 Olympics as well as your critiques of excessive patriotic focus.
As for Hitchens’ “Fool’s Gold” article which you referred to, I wasn’t impressed by the cynical and grumpy tone of the piece, let alone the sub-title claim that the Olympics and other international sporting events “breed contempt and bring out the worst in people.” After all, one could probably say the same things about marriage that this says about sports, but we all know that such an assessment wouldn’t cover the whole story!
I was especially ticked by Hitchens’ reference to that historic South African versus New Zealand rugby game (featured in “Invictus,” I think–a movie I still want to see) which my husband and I watched “live” on SABC TV, while working in Durban in 1995, less than a year after the first-ever democratic elections were held in April, 1994.
As we, along with millions of South Africans of every racial and ethnic grouping, watched that rugby game unfold, there was no doubt in our minds that this sporting event (which was actively promoted, indeed “engineered,” by the already legendary new president, Nelson Mandela with the hope of nation-building), was somehow binding together a deliberately divided people and creating a sense of unity in this new-born country which was very desperately needed after many generations of suffering unleashed by the deadly ugliness of the apartheid era.
So, on that momentous day when the South African Springbok team won that World Cup match by scoring in extra time, it was a truly incredible experience to hear the tremendous roar which erupted all around us in our 30-story apartment block as hundreds of people of every racial hue, flung open their windows, waved flags and fabrics displaying the new South African colours, green, black, gold, blue, white and red, then spilled out into street, linking arms and singing an old migrant miner’s song, “Shosholoza” (“Go forward over the mountains, the train is coming from South Africa!”) which soon became the official Springbok song, and indeed, a “second anthem” for South Africa.
Everyone was celebrating the “new South Africa,” delighted beyond words that at last their country was no longer a pariah internationally, but was now led by a very wise and respected “Old Man” who knew the value of playing together in the midst of suffering, and also of celebrating the ordinary “little things” in life which have the potential to bring people together even as they help lighten the load of daily living, especially in a country which everyone knew, still had the long journey towards true equality and freedom ahead of it after years of oppression which had negatively affected both the oppressed and the oppressor.
To conclude, despite the negative things that have happened politically and socially in South Africa (and elsewhere) since then, it still remains true that this rugby game did not breed contempt, nor did it bring out the worst in people; instead it did the exact opposite: it brought a divided people together in ways they’d never dreamed of or experienced before, and resulted in an indescribable joy and surge of hope which will surely live on in the psyche/memory of this new nation and serve as an inspiration as they continue their freedom journey.
If that’s “fool’s gold”—let’s have more of it even now with the Olympics in Vancouver, where athletes like Alexandre Bilodeau inspire us not only with their physical expertise but with hearts warmed by the self-giving love of equally “heroic” others who do not have these opportunities themselves but who encourage and cheer them on from the sidelines, to enjoy what they do and give it their best always.
So, yes, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
Thanks David, and Leona, for your comments.
@ David. I certainly agree: it’s the stories, of real people, that make events like this live for us.
@ Leona. And you’ve given us one! Yours is such a wonderful story, bringing Invictus and sport together. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, even though rugby is to me an odd-looking and unfamiliar game, and knew it was based on fact, but it makes it even more meaningful now to know you were there. — And you’re not the only one unimpressed with Hitchens’ grumpy, cynical tone. David Zirin, here, came back strong.
I think you completely missed the Hitchens point about Invictus. He doesnt say that Invictus moment was bringing worst in people. But that because of this racism, nationalism etc. which was reflected in rugby and other sports BEFORE Invictus, we wouldnt need Invictus moment in the first place…
“Yes, yes, I know about Invictus and am a slight friend and strong admirer of the author of the original book. But it was the use of rugby and other sporting cults to reinforce and exemplify apartheid that had been the problem in the first place. And no clear-eyed observer of the South African scene thinks that the Invictus moment was any more than a brief pause in the steady decline of friendship between the country’s ethnic groups: a decline that has much to do with sporting rivalries and the idiotic loyalties and customs on which such allegiances depend.”
Suppose what if I throw you to the water pool and then I saved your life, because you couldnt swim. Yes, its good that i saved you, but if I wouldnt throw you there, we wouldnt need to deal with this situation in the first place…