An Olympic Cynic

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Why do we root for Olympic athletes?

The easy answer, of course, is that they’re representing our country. It would be unpatriotic not to root for Apollo Ohno.

But let’s challenge that easy answer today. Think about it. What, if anything, does speed skating have to do with helping America? Isn’t it really just entertainment? Why are these “heroes” important to us?

Is someone who can swim 50 yards really fast an American hero? Is someone who can ski well an American icon? If I can dance on ice with a partner better than anyone else, am I improving our country?

Perhaps I’m just a cynic, but I really don’t get it. I just want things called as they are. Olympic athletes are entertainers. Most of them are of a privileged, elite class that can afford expensive facilities and famous Russian coaches. Every four years they’re featured on TV so NBC can make a lot of money.

And yes, if you watch Olympic TV, you can’t help but be inspired and feel “patriotic.” There are some good stories to be told. Maybe you get excited when you check the medal board and see that America is number one. We’re number one at what, though? People who can dance on ice? Why are these people idolized?

Like I said, these athletes are entertainers, just like any athlete. But if you’re looking for an American hero…well, frankly, I don’t even know what an American hero looks like anymore. You can live the America dream by starting your own business. You can become an American legend by becoming a politician or a president. You can be an American icon by being a movie star. You can defend America by joining the army.

I’d have to say that a true American hero is a rare breed. Someone who has earned what they have in an honest and ethical manner, is responsible for their lives and the lives they affect, and seeks to improve their situation and the situation of the people around them (and people they don’t even know).

What is an American hero to you?


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9 thoughts on “An Olympic Cynic”

  1. I think the word “hero” is one of the most overused. It’s no longer reserved for people who have done something great at their own peril or expense. That sentiment just gets me going on how words are losing their meaning when they are thrown around imprecisely.

    Another one that bothers me is using the metaphor of athletics being like battle or war. Um.. no, not at all you pampered, overpaid people “who-can-move-your-bodies-real-good”.

    As for the Olympics, I find myself enjoying them, and recently a lot of sports movies, as they are very inspiring in that you have people who fought to be the best in their field. There’s definitely something to be said/learned/gained from that — but, you’re right, they’re not heros.

  2. I like your definition of a hero. Is there anything (beyond nationality) that would define an “American hero” to you?

    That’s a great point about sports being compared to battle or war. 🙂

  3. I agree that the word hero gets thrown around way too much. Its interesting though that Jamey mentioned how olympic athletes usually lead easy pampered lives that let them get really good at sports, but he mentioned that politicians and presidents should probably be considered as heroes even though they are often in the same circumstances as olympic athletes.

  4. Gabby–I think you misread that paragraph. The examples of politicians, movie stars, and entrepreneurs were to illustrate that I don’t think they’re American heroes either.

  5. Well, let me ask you this, Jamey: who said you had to root for anybody? I don’t mean you specifically. I mean you as in us—since when does the Olympics matter? If memory serves (it probably doesn’t), nobody seems to really care about the Olympics. It’s fun to watch; but it’s meaningless—just like the NBA, the MLB, the NFL, the PTA. It’s fun to marvel at the feats of athleticism. Why, watching a pair of Chinese figure skaters flip and duck and spin and twirl puts LeBron James’ “chase down blocks” in perspective.
    It’s important to remember that we as spectators see things differently than the athletes. It’s easy for me to say that the Olympics are meaningless. It’s easy to chalk everything up to commercialism. But I guess it’s important to remember, too, that these people are athletes first and then entertainers. It’s too bad that those who become Olympic superstars like Apollo Ohno and Shawn White and that Swimmer (the ones who come to represent the Olympics itself) are somehow construed as entertainers first and then athletes. But who is to blame? The media or the consumer? Who turned these people into heroes? Perhaps the media packaged the product, but who bought it?
    Underneath it all, though, is something to care about—even fleetingly. Why does it matter if the Cardinals win the World Series? Why do I feel proud when Carmello Anthony is in the all-star game? Same questions. And answers. Just larger scale.

  6. Dave–Great, great comment. Thanks for your thoughts. Here’s my take:

    The difference between the Olympics and all those other sporting organizations is that Olympic athletes are representing the U.S. But why? That’s what I’m cynical about. What is the point of “representing” America by skiing? Couldn’t you better represent America by actually doing something to improve America?

    • i thought about this for a few days….
      here’s my two-pronged take on this, jamey. america can’t do anything to improve america. i know that that sounds strange, but i see it like this: change–either positive or negative–occurs organically through shifts in ideology, taste, preference, or morals, etc. take hip-hop, for example. most of the hip-hop on the radio these days makes me want to slit my wrists (seriously). i see hip-hop these days as having a negative effect on society. yet the themes that dominate hip-hop songs know reflect a development that did not occur intentionally.
      on the other hand, attention to non-standard *boy+girl=love* relationships, however slowly, is changing america for the better. attention to broader conceptions of gender and love, i think, will make america a better place. that being said, one cannot set out to better a place such as this–with its broad citizenry–intentionally and actually succeed. change comes from within, not without.
      and the other side of the coin looks like this: america is a business. in order for change to be enacted, there has to be an economic reason. somebody has to make a lot of money out of the deal. changing america for the better (whatever that may mean) would be a high-risk venture that nobody–as i see it–is willing to undertake. compare it to your washington university in st. louis. the only reason there’s so much revamping going on is because it will make everybody at the top richer. it’s only a matter of coincidence that student life will improve.
      so, in a sense, skiing makes sense. having a skier retroactively represent america creates a false sense of unity and of purpose. it temporarily suggests progress and betterment–because that’s what everyone wants, but nobody can actually do.
      at least that’s how i see it…

      • You know, this is such a good response that I don’t think I have an answer to it. I actually…agree with you. It doesn’t make me want to watch or care about the Olympics any more than I already do. But I see your point. It’s capitalism at its highest level–so high that we don’t even realize it’s capitalism. Hey, if it gives Americans jobs who want jobs, I’m all for it.


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