The Olympics are starting soon.
I’m not sure when, because since I’ve grown up the Olympics like Christmas have gone from long-awaited and always memorable highlight of the year to an excuse to indulge some selfish instincts in socially acceptable ways. In the case of the Olympics, this instinct is the one to consider myself both highly successful and immortal as part of the human project called the United States of America. I check the medal counts, pat myself on the back for being part of a political entity that also includes Michael Phelps, then check the weather and go about my day.
I agree with the late Christopher Hitchens that the Olympics are a tribalistic exercise with an athletic pretense. Yes, there are people who just watch to see the human body do amazing things, but most are in it for their team (of several hundred million). The frame of “us vs. them” is necessary for making the platform for athletic competition as broadly appealing as possible. International athletic competitions broadcast in the US are full of biographical details about one or two competitors in the event who happen to be American, tugging our support their way if only for reasons of familiarity. Japanese broadcasts sometimes will just skip the whole “who won” part in favor of a closeup and interview with the 6th-place Japanese finisher. On the odd chance “our” athlete wins, it proves not just that very dedicated individual is capable of great things, it proves that we all are. Of course, by “we all” I mean Americans or Japanese. Their gold is our gold. They can keep the lifetime of practice and stunted growth.
There is one way in which the most conservative, nationalistic jingoes are inevitably socialist, and that is when it comes to the redistribution of athletic achievement. If someone invents an app and makes 23 million dollars, let that person keep most of it. But if someone executes a triple sowcow, we demand a cut. In fact it’s positively immoral to refuse to share in their glory, since the logic by which you refuse to take credit for someone else’s achievement applies equally well to everyone pretending to have something more than who they pay their taxes to in common with Olympians. It also extends to all a nation’s supposed points of pride, and when it comes down to it threatens the entire nationalist enterprise. If you don’t support Kei Nishikori as a Japanese, it’s like saying you don’t need to feel the need to still take sides in discussions of WW2, don’t believe rice cultivation 2000 years ago was a formative event in your personality, and don’t see your shared bloodline as a guarantee of shared interests – positively radical statements. For now for most of us, the pros of having a permanent public source of self-esteem are greater than the costs in logical coherence and individuality, and we look forward to accepting the dole of a bit of Phelp’s gold.