Friday, August 8, 2008

2008 Beijing Olympics Begin Tonight

2008 Beijing Olympics Begin Tonight

I haven't missed an Olympics since 1964. I know all the hype is designed to (a) sell us crap and (b) pretend like poor nations get a chance to compete equally. I know women are frozen out of the picture in too much of the world, and I know countries which are chosen to host are often imperialist overlords who authorize spying on its citizens, uncontrolled torture of "dissidents", unprovoked violence against smaller nations, and diverse forms of cultural intolerance or outright genocide. (Like the U.S.)

But it is a chance to see non-political people from 205 nations gather together peacefully. If you use the mute button for everything but the actual competitions and some of the ceremony description, you'll see pinnacles of human effort and connection.

In 1968, I saw Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in a Black Power salute of the medal stand of the 200 meter race in Mexico City. (I was hooked forever after that.) In 1972, I sat glued to the television, weeping, as 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and one German police officer were killed by members of Black September. During the 1988 winter games in Alberta, friends and I watching in the Bay Area called the phone machine of Brian Boitano in Sunnyvale, California to leave messages praising him for acting so queer in his skating routines. That summer, in the Seoul games, a living room full of us gasped out loud as Greg Louganis his hit head with a whack on a reverse 2.5 pike, sustaining a serious concussion, but he went on to win the gold in diving. At the 1998 Nagano winter games, I screamed as Elvis Stojko leaped across the ice in his black leather jacket. In the Sydney games of 2000, I again wept as I saw North and South Korea marching together under a unification flag, and four people from the country-about-to-be of East Timor literally jumping and running with joy at this first manifestation of their people's nationality. In the 2004 Athens games, the Greek people gave a standing ovation to Afghanistan and Iraq, expressing their sympathy for these nations in the face of U.S. aggression. Too many times to recount, I've seen nations where their entire female population is represented by a single athlete -- or none at all.

So, I will be watching the opening ceremonies tonight and digging for the larger stories, even as I protest China's human rights abuses. During the opening ceremonies, the host nation is given enormous opportunity to present its culture and accomplishments to the world. I really enjoy these displays, hokey or confusing as they often are: A chance to learn is buried within. At some point, the Parade of Nations begins. The first nation is always Greece, because of their founding of the Olympic games. The host nation marches last. Between these two nations, all other participating nations march in alphabetical order of the dominant language of the host country, or in French or English alphabetical order if the host country does not write its dominant language in an alphabet which has a set order.

My particular ritual is to watch the Parade of Nations with either a globe or an atlas and compete to see who can first find the next country entering the line-up. It's a great geography builder. The BBC has a terrific website which shows full profiles of every nation in the world, an instant guide to history, politics and economic background of countries and territories, and background on key institutions, available here. For a more generic world map which has easily readable names, you can enlarge the one below.

The Summer Olympics includes 28 sports with 34 disciplines (clicking on each sport will take you to the NBC link for that event): Archery, Badminton, Baseball, Basketball, Beach Volleyball, Boxing, Canoeing/Kayaking, Cycling, Diving, Equestrian, Fencing, Field Hockey, Gymnastics, Handball, Judo, Modern Pentathlon, Rhythmic Gymnastics, Rowing, Sailing, Shooting, Soccer, Softball, Swimming, Synchronized Swimming, Table Tennis, Taekwondo, Tennis, Track & Field, Trampoline, Triathlon, Volleyball, Water Polo, Weightlifting., and Wrestling.

The official website of the Olympic games is here. NBC's website for coverage of the Olympics is here.

Unusual Maps offers the map copied below illustrates the average number of medals won per million people in an Olympic Summer Games between 1996 and 2004. More than a medal count, this is an illustration of how economic power and political control determine too much of Olympics outcome. But there are e

xceptions, and I'll be hoping for those. More to come...