Saturday, August 09, 2008

On sport

What is sport?

I've stared at that question for quite awhile. I can hear the reaction of the thoughtless, football-jerseyed ogres saying, "Duh!"

But sport is more than the games played, more than baseball, football, track and field. It's business, too. And politics.

Would you say it's art? Would you say it's science?

When Abner Doubleday (or Alexander Cartwright, depending on which baseball historian you ask) created the game of baseball, with its lines and dimensions and rules and numbers, did he create art? How is creating a game different from creating a painting?

And the science - the angles, wind factors, the Speedo swimsuits, all of that technology, the human body made into a great and glorious doubt sport is science, too.

God/Allah/Yahweh/Krishna/Buddha/Great Spirit/Insert-other-name-of-god-in-vain, I love the Olympics.

Imagine being a conscript in Napolean's or Tsar Alexander's army or Salahaddin's or King Richard's army and someone tells you that one day, it would not be warriors who are revered but athletes who compete for their countries despite political differences. You couldn't believe it. Envision a solider, call him John, stumbling across the parched deserts of the Holy Land, the stench of body odor permeating the heavy air, his shield adorned with the cross of his god, staring out at certain death in the form of Salahaddin's army with its scintillating scimitars raised under the mideastern sun. Today, John is a sprinter, his muscles as beautiful as a Michaelangelo sculpture, his body well-fed, his wallet heavy, running next to - not at - Ahmed for the glory of his country.

Boy have we made some progress in the world.

But we still have a long way to go.

There is beauty. The Olympic Opening Ceremony was beautiful - incredible - perhaps the best one I have ever seen, maybe the greatest ever. From the drums to the lines of lights to the awe inspiring lighting of the torch, I felt my jaw drop several times. THAT was art.

Then there is bullshit. The Chinese almost fooled us into thinking they weren't an authoritarian regime with gross human rights abuses, a disgusting environment, and rampant poverty (while they spent $300 million on that ceremony alone.) And I hear from some Americans "leave the politics out." That makes me sick. You want to sit there and ignore the suffering of millions of people so you can continue to sit on your couch in comfort chanting U-S-A! and not have to think? That is equivalent to the actions of the Chinese government, while it continues to support the atrocities of the Sudanese government in the name of oil, while it continues to arrest journalists who dare criticize its actions, while it continues to sicken its citizens by dumping toxic chemicals wherever it is convenient, while it continues to oppress Tibet and the Uighars, while it continues to torture its prisoners, so many of them political, while it continues religious persecution - REAL religious persecution, not the faux variety claimed by some evangelical Americans.

How can you not think about it? How can you sit there knowing thousands of people lost their homes so the Olympic village could be built and not think about it? If you are religious, how can you not pray for the Chinese who suffer at the hands of an authoritarian communist government? Are we not living in the same country that proclaimed the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire?" Are we not the same ones who destroyed people's lives in communist witch hunts? Did we not skip an entire Olympics and ruin the dreams of our athletes because the games were held in a communist capital? And yet because we are able to buy cheap products from China, it somehow makes their authoritarian communist government ok?

How can you not think about it?

So we watch these games and we marvel at the ability of countries to get together and play games, not war, and we see the pure joy on the faces of the athletes, and we see the three athletes from a small country we may have never heard of with no chance for a medal and we smile, because we see the joy on their faces, and we see their dreams, and we realize their dreams are the same as ours. And you know what else is there? Hope. We ARE capable of getting along. We are capable of putting aside our differences to play games together. Games! Not war! Why do I love the Olympics? Because hope is transformed into three dimensional people and podiums and medals and pools and stadiums. Hope becomes something visible, and that makes it more real.

So we can watch, and think, and keep our eyes on the Chinese government and tell our politicians to stop pandering to China. We can cut down on the cheap plastic junk we don't need. We can choose not to buy the products advertised at the games. And we can do this all while still enjoying the Olympics in the ancient and modern city of Beijing. We can do all of this with hope. We can look at the progress the Chinese government has made and we can hope they will continue down that road. We can push them. We can change this world - we already have. Hope.

Baseball starts on Wednesday. I can't wait to watch Yulieski Gourriel. You think there is no politics in sport? One only has to look at Cuban baseball to see that is not true.

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