With the monstrous publicity associated with Pennsylvania State University's recent scandal, the spirit of the thirtieth Olympiad must certainly be suffering. I can't get myself to tune in for very long, as much as Britannia appropriated the event unto herself and celebrated her brilliant history in a dazzling panoply of media, history, and artforms.
Think Britain, not ancient Greece, certainly, where pederasty, particularly between an adult male and a male youth, was condoned. I don't know how much inhibition was involved back then or how much display, but what a subject. What ambiguity there is in perpetuating only some of the Greek tradition with a sense of liaison and continuity. The idea of nude competition would provoke laughter today, along with the fact that certain classes of women were allowed to observe such [originally] all-male events.
The joys and sorrows of competition are at the base of the Olympics then as well as now. Gods competed with each other, as did heroes, from Hercules to Achilles. Was there an equivalent of steroids back then? Corruption is also an ageless presence in Western civilization. Did different varieties of olive oil or wine produce different levels of competency? Drug "highs" also date back to the verses of Homer if not earlier.
War back then was the ultimate Olympic competition. Laurels were gained by heroes, but strangely, it was the victim rather than the victor on whom Homer focused; as the angry soul flew out of its body, Homer would divert audiences to its origins in this or that rustic, enchanting place, reciting lineage, envisioning the sorrow among families whose proud soldier would never return home alive.
Competitive games were played at funerals, diversions from grief as are the food and drink and companionship that make post-funeral gatherings so memorable.
The first Olympic games were short foot races. Boxing, wrestling, charioteering, pentathlons and other athletics soon joined the competitive agenda. Similar to Homer only more recent, lyric poets like Pindar and Bacchylides immortalized the athletes and themselves as they wrote commissioned verses celebrating victors and delving into their origins and lineages, heaping pride on their homelands and rejoicing in the games themselves--the excruciating preparations, the beauty of perfect performances, the beauty of the athletes, and more.
The flora of Aegina would certainly bloom more profusely now that their native son Aristocles had triumphed in the footrace. Glory would adorn her, travelers come from far and wide to marvel, and the lineage itself would ascend back to the divinity to which it was so often traced.
As widespread as athletics are around the world and have been since the dawn of collective memory, the pollution of sexual abuse always lurks somewhere in the narrative, dark and ugly, sly and insidious where it is considered taboo. Penn State is surely not the only place in the world where this violation occurs--witness its other manifestations still emerging in the context of the Church, an even more sacrosanct milieu, where we worship God rather than men.
How we celebrate and focus on the agony of both winners and losers--in the latter case, far more than the ancient lyricists did. What a fine fiber separates victory from defeat--one wrong move, one-too-many blinks, a pebble in the sawdust--who knows? Such instants become eternity for competitors, interviewed as the heroes that they are, profiled far and wide, their moments of victory or error rehearsed again and again by the media.
Is it all worth it? we the spectators ask. Despite all the training, all the expense, we are victims of chance and Dama Fortuna as well.
How often do these momentary celebrities persist in the media? Their muscalature sags as they appear on beer or athletic product commercials, their heydays now past, over the hill by age thirty.
One of the most brilliant athletes I ever witnessed, a gold medalist who couldn't be more than forty now, fell over the hill quickly, marrying a rockstar, caving into drug abuse. What a life.
I can't begin to dissect the Olympian experience, but these lines came to me not in celebration but rather mourning, as Joe Paterno's statue--such a Greek presence on the campus--tumbled down and his school sank into infamy. Where will the next cataclysm take us? Professional athletes have been caught using steroids. Nothing is ever perfect. The falling of a star may look wondrous in the sky, but in reality it is far beyond tragic.
The fall and rise of athletics have occurred too closely this year. I guess that's my ultimate thought on this uneasy subject. For me the games are in black and white if I can watch them at all. I used to marvel at the amazing moves of the gymnasts, who have sacrified normality to their sport. Their height will freeze at the four-feet-something it was when they took up the sport in earnest; they may not be able to bear children. To choose Olympics as a lifelong pursuit is in many ways to die young. Better than starring in media commercials, many Olympians become coaches to their successors, past staring at the future, wondering if it's worth it, behaving as if it is.
And, like tornadoes produced by the collision between warm and cold wind fronts, what will result from this procession of exuberance after tragic scandal? What will we learn? How will we change? Under what rock does perfection dwell? we might ask on girl scout hikes and in life. And what will ultimately triumph? Will the new normal we are inexorably headed toward survive?