Guys, I love the Olympics. Please humor me by hitting “play” on the following as you read this blog post.
1. The Olympics
For the next two weeks, my productivity will drop substantially as I watch every Olympic event from cycling to field hockey to judo. Once I discovered the official Olympics youtube channel, I knew it was all over.
The odd thing is that I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world. I play sports, and I like watching sports if they happen to be on. But I have few loyalties and there are no teams I actively follow. I don’t pay attention to March Madness, the World Series, or the Superbowl — for our non-American readers, those are college basketball, professional baseball, and American football, respectively. I certainly don’t follow the European football leagues. Then there are the sports that I don’t even understand. Like cricket. I have a theory that the whole sport was an elaborate British joke that just got out of hand.
Yet I get totally hooked whenever the Olympics start. I even watch the winter Olympics, which is widely regarded as the second-best Olympics. And I’ll watch any sport, including the ones that aren’t quite sports. (I’ll refrain from listing those here, for fear of sparking controversy, but suffice it to say that any activity with musical accompaniment is more art than sport.)
Why do I get so enthralled by the Olympics?
2. Sports in general
Let’s start with the idea of sports. I love what sports represent. They provide us with opportunities for greatness. They teach us how to train, focus on a goal, communicate and work together. We draw direct lessons from them for our personal and professional lives. We also draw something more abstract: emotional analogies that can drive us to excel or endure in completely unrelated fields. Sports inspire us.
Sports also create a morally simplified version of the world. They’re similar to literature or movies in that regard. Our daily lives are full of unclear rules, questionable allegiances, and ambiguous achievements. In sports, these are all cleared up. We know the rules, because they’re stated and enforced. We know who’s on our team, because they’re wearing the same shirt. And we know when we’ve won or lost, because we have a scoreboard. There’s something very comforting about this simplicity.
3. Tribalism at its best
For spectators, sports tap into our tribal tendencies. They even reinforce those tendencies. Since the beginning of civilization, mankind has drawn barriers between “us” and “them”. We identify with one group — a city, a university, a country, a racial group — and this inherently means including some while excluding others. We do it in all aspects of life. This psychological habit has manifested itself in humanity’s darkest moments of war and genocide. It’s not obvious that sports, an activity that reinforces the “us” vs. “them” mindset, would be a net positive at a geopolitical level.
And yet it is. This is why the Olympic games represent the pinnacle of global civilization. That’s not meant as hyperbole. I’m serious when I say that no human institution is a greater symbol of what we can accomplish together than the Olympic games. It’s not just because sports bring us together. After all, there are plenty of institutions that bring the world together: the United Nations, the Nobel Prizes, CERN, art museums, films, and more. But sports trump science, art and other fields because sports start from a place of division. We have taken the one thing that usually drives us apart and transmuted it into something that brings us together.
I don’t mean to say that the Olympics actually promote world peace more than those other institutions. The reach is limited and periodic. International trade and diplomacy must have larger impacts. Yet the Olympics triumph over these others in symbolism. Every two years the world spends two weeks to say, in effect: “If we can turn this tribalism into something that joins us rather than divides us, then imagine what else we can do.”
4. More events means more winners
The World Cup also brings the world together, and I love it too. However, the Olympics do something the World Cup cannot: they make it possible for dozens of countries to shine. Countries that don’t often make international headlines can suddenly be stars. We all know that Kenya is good at distance running, while Jamaica wins gold in the sprints. Apparently Slovakia knows how to slalom canoe, South Korea dominates archery, and both Cuba and Kazakhstan are pretty good at boxing.
When watching the Olympics, if you’re not sure who to cheer for, try going with whichever country is the geopolitical/economic underdog. And no country is an underdog like one that isn’t officially recognized yet: since South Sudan hasn’t established an Olympic Committee — priorities, guys! — Guor Marial will be running under the Olympic flag. The same opportunity was given to athletes from the former Yugoslavia in 1992, and those from Timor-Leste in 1999.
Just try and tell me that’s not inspiring.
P.S. Confidential to my colleagues: The bit about dropping productivity was just a joke. I’ll be totally focused at work the next two weeks, I promise. My Olympics-watching time is more likely to cut into my sleeping and (ironically) visits to the gym.