I was a little disappointed in the opening ceremonies last night. I had expected something a little more flashy and in keeping with the Italian spirit, but they seemed flat. Except for the lighting of the Olympic flame near the end of the ceremony: that was wicked cool.
As expected, NBC's coverage was sub-par. I was glad to hear that they'd swapped out Katie Couric for Brian Williams to assist Bob Costas with the opening night coverage, but all they let Williams do was interject useless bits of pseudo-trivia when Costas wasn't bloviating. I wish I could get the satellite feed directly, and just blow off all the blathering. My TiVo helps with some of that, anyway: I can always fast-forward through all the fluff-and-sob stories about how Athlete X rose above a crappy childhood in a trailer park, yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. Next!
Nevertheless, I am a tremendous partisan of the Olympic Games. They are a testimony to all that is best in the human spirit. I don't know what bug Paul Farhi had up his butt last Sunday when he opined in the Washington Post that the Winter Olympics "could be more accurately branded 'The European and North American Expensive Sports Festival.'" While Farhi chose to belittle the Ethiopians' first-ever delegation to the Winter Games (a single Alpine skier), I find in that fact a vindication of what the Olympic movement is all about: bringing together the world community through friendly competition.
Sure, the Norwegians have won a boatload more medals than anybody else in the Winter Olympics. The Canadians, the Germans, the Americans, the Swedes, the Finns, and the Dutch are probably going to win most of the hardware this time. And sure, the overwhelming majority of the 2,633 accredited athletes are likely to go home without even one of the 243 medals that will be awarded across all of the 15 sports. What of it?
How many American kids play football, for example? And how many of them will go on to make it into the NFL? Of those fortunate few, how many will go on to win a Super Bowl ring? I don't hear Farhi (or anybody else) complaining that all those kids are just wasting their time, or berating them for spending so much effort and passion pursuing such a remote goal, so why should the Winter Olympics be treated any differently?
Consider one of the events from last night's opening ceremonies. The North and South Korean teams marched into the stadium together. According to the commentary, their two countries are considering competing as one team at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Now, when was the last time you heard North and South Korea agree about anything, except perhaps how evil the other country was?
Or consider the Kenyan cross-country skier Philip Boit, who got into the sport a decade ago because Nike was looking for some people to cross over into winter sports in a country renowned for its distance runners (including Philip's older brother Mike, who won a bronze medal in the 800 meters at the 1972 Munich Games). At the Nagano Games in 1998, Boit finished dead last in the 10km classic, with a time of 47.25.5--20 minutes after the winner crossed the line. But the winner of that race, the Michael Jordan of Norwegian cross-country skiing, Bjorn Dæhlie, was waiting at the finish line to applaud and embrace Boit for his efforts. Boit will be competing in Turin in his third Olympics, after cutting more than 10 minutes from his Nagano time in the 10km race.
That is what the Olympics are all about. Bringing together people from all around the world because of a shared love for sport. Overcoming national and territorial rivalries in the quest to grow, in the words of the Olympic motto, citius, altius, fortius: "Faster, higher, stronger." It's not about the doping scandals, or the judging controversies, or even about who wins the most medals. It's about bringing together young people (and a few who are not so young, like the U.S. Virgin Islands' "Grandma Luge", Anne Abernathy--at 58 the oldest woman ever to compete in the Winter Games) who would otherwise never encounter one another, and give them a chance to learn about each other's countries, their cultures, and their sports. It's about the opportunity for the nations of the world to come together in peace (and once upon a time the Olympic truce actually meant something--wouldn't it be lovely if we got back to that idea?), and about having a giant party at the closing ceremonies, when all the athletes mingle together, leaving behind national rivalries and international tensions, to enjoy the moment in each others' company.
As long as that's a part of the Olympic Games, I'll quite happily make room for them in my heart and on my TiVo schedule.