Saturday, August 14, 2004



We watched parts of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics last night. Quite a show, but it was overshadowed by a dense cloud of hot air emanating from Bob Costas: -- "Wait until you see this get-up, Katie." "Look at the pleats on those skirts; I'd hate to see the dry cleaning bill for those." "When you're a Greek god, you can pretty much do what you please." "They're giving props to each of the official languages of the games. But now they have switched back to English, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief."

And my personal anti-favorite: "Guess what country is coming up next, Katie. You bet Djibouti!" Argh. (And yet the Times asserts that Costas and Couric avoided offensive comments. I guess they aren't counting the jokes about funny names and "traditional garb" as offensive.)

The opening ceremonies are very redolent of turn-of-the-century World's Fairs like the ones held in Chicago in 1893 and in St. Louis in 1904. It may not be coincidental that the modern games were revived in the same era (1896). Since the demise of the Fairs, in fact, the opening ceremonies are in a league of their own as panoramic spectacles with an international audience of millions. For recent historians, the World's Fairs have served as illuminating windows onto contemporary views about race, empire, gender and technology. If this historiography is any indication, I'm willing to bet that future historians will have a field day (no pun intended) with the Olympics. They really are fascinating snapshots of how organizers saw the world at the time.

I was impressed by the climactic scene, when the Easter-Island-like sculpture fell apart to reveal a man trying to stay balanced on a rotating cube, a kind of inverted Atlas. I also liked the double-helix displayed in laser lights. Pretty amazing technically. Without the constant stream of commentary from Costas, it might even have been profound. I found myself wondering whether the tangled mass of wires, by which the sculptures and various dancers were suspended, were deliberately made to be as visible as they were. Either way, it made for a stunning scene.

Part of being a graduate student is seeing your thesis everywhere. Preoccupied as I am with the themes in my dissertation, I was struck by the keynote speeches, which made me think about the interesting coexistence of internationalism and nationalism at the Olympic Games. On the one hand, the Games represent a kind of peaceful internationalism, and they are ritually praised every four years as a reprieve from war. Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the chief organizer in Athens, began her speech by addressing the "citizens of the world." She concluded by suggesting that in competitive sports, national, linguistic, and racial barriers are broken down. The IOC chairman sounded similar themes about the world's need for peace, echoing Angelopoulous-Daskalaki's claim that national divisions can be overcome in the nonviolent arena of international sports.

But are the Olympics really cosmopolitan? They could equally be read as unparalleled celebrations of national pride and achievement. The opening ceremonies themselves were panegyrics to Greece and occidental civilizations. National barriers may be broken down by sports, but as Brian and his various respondents point out over at Crooked Timber, national divisions are as impermeable as ever when it comes to broadcasting them. And over the coming weeks, the media will keep us endlessly reminded of which country is ahead in the "medal count." The Olympics place in stark relief how intertwined cosmopolitanism and patriotism can be.

Nevertheless, I have to confess that I am still moved by the possibility that sports can channel human competitiveness into peaceful venues. The Olympics occasion their fair share of nationalistic chest-beating, but who can be disappointed that this is a more peaceful kind of patriotism? Of course, patriotism that is peaceful in one guise can be murderous in another. But if national competition is not going away anytime soon (and I don't think it is, despite the prognostications of globalization theorists), should we not be glad that there are peaceful outlets for such competition?

I remember thinking the same thing when I was in Italy during the summer of 2000, when the Palio was being run in Siena. The Palio is a fierce horse race between the seventeen contrade--or city wards--of Siena. In medieval times, the contrade used to engage in regular civil wars. Now they race horses. I am not so cynical that I cannot say, without qualification, that horse races are better than wars. And so are the Olympics.

UPDATE: I learned something new: that the Olympics were also held in St. Louis in 1904 as part of the World's Fair. And Ralph Luker has this interesting post at Cliopatria about "Anthropology Days" at the Olympics. (This is the kind of thing I had in mind when I suggested "the World's Fairs have served as illuminating windows onto contemporary views about race, empire, gender and technology," and that the Olympics are similar kinds of windows onto how we view the world and the human species today.)

Collective Improvisation:

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