What an oddball the Olympics are in a culture industry where really popular things usually belong to a genre with other works like them. But what's like the Olympics? Not other sports, which don't like to share broadcasts, fans, cities as synchronously, and tend to make more sense athletically, draw more fans naturally.
1. The experience of watching many sports in one broadcast, one city, one intense period of daily nearly nonstop manifestation for 2 weeks. It's a community lover's dream. You know, those of us who think the world's too scattered and unconnected, as are most accounts of the world, be it in economics, criticism, or artistic portraits? We get a little relief and an inspiration to keep preferring interconnectedness over the isolation of genre, department, field, sector, whatever. It's a Marxist thought experiment to avoid the kind of production of abstract space where everything has its self-contained place that Henri Lefebvre diagnoses as the evil genius means by which capitalism maintains itself. Add the disorientation of time delay, so that in the evening you're watching people shoot arrow in the noonday sun. One can't underestimate the importance of the compact, packed grab bag of intuitive and counterintuitive uses of the human body over 2 weeks. Duration is one of the tricks for altering consciousness. A two hour basketball game is just a brief forgettable blip in your day. Two weeks taken out of your life to watch the same but different event full of mini-events? Well that's a chance to do something long enough to defamilarize it. And defamiliarization is the name of the game for those who want the freshness and innovativeness of an LSD trip without having to take the damn drug everyday.
2. The chance to do something other than get mesmerized by what you're watching, and also do that something with the trancelike consistency of the Olympics that makes for good extended self-analysis in journaling if you haven't done that for awhile (I check in on myself every 4 years), or for an ambitious long eclectic piece, given unexpected eccentric twists and turns as it responds to the bizarre rhythm of going from synchonrized diving to javelin to volleyball. My four-year check ins are facilitated by the convenient and for me profound placing of the always well-designed logo: London 2012 running across every track, ski pole, underneath the ice and above the court. I let everything stay temporally grounded, think about the passage of time since the last Olympics and my ways of tracking it, while time is defied by the daredevils zooming over the year below them.
3. The sports are just bizarre sometimes, and totally make our usual viewing habits look absurd. Like just being a spectator at a long rowing race. You pay that money and reserve that spot and then you get to watch 10 seconds of a 3-minute race in the middle? Or what about going to watch pistol shooting. You just look around and think, these have to be the most unfamous sportsmen or celebrities at the top of their game ever. And what kind of strange collection of human beings knows the names of these 'athletes' and how good each one is? If I was going to write a psychotic character I'd make him the world's most passionate and knowledgeable shooting fan. Or maybe badminton fan. Or maybe it's brilliant performance art to devote yourself to fandom in one of these sports, to avoid the trance of normality and retain consciousness of the fundamental strangeness of contemporary life. Just think, you're committing to fandom in a sport missing the classic reasons to do it--doesn't give you something to relate about when talking to strangers. Doesn't give you that time immorial human need to participate in massive rituals, sacrifices, catharses. Doesn't involve impressive physical specimens moving their bodies in beautiful, graceful, or unbelievable ways. Nope, you're just watching a Adela Sykorova of the Czech Republic shoot a gun. Wait, you're telling me you don't know the great Sykorova?!
4. It's also bizarre and even unnerving to root for countries. Sure, you can do this also in the World Cup, but it's about the combination of oddities in the Olympics. Besides it's easy to wax philosophic on what it means if Italia is the best in the world at soccer this year. What about if it's best at water polo, fencing and volleyball? My favorite game is to root for the countries with the most commendable governments that least oppress their people and the world. That strategy does it make it alienating to watch broadcasts here in the U.S.A., since you're always rooting for them to lose, along with Israel and China, but it gives you something to talk about with the people when you visit the Netherlands, Venezuela, or France (who this olympics you get really behind because they didn't have a socialist president in 2008). There's something simultaneously more metaphorically profound, inducing you to think of world politics and economics, and dangerously simplistic about rooting for a country. It's so ridiculous to say "Go USA crush France" when woman's trampoline is the context, that it allows some a degree of sudden discomfort about patriotism. You take the team both more and less seriously than a city sports team. The combination of more and less serious is the sacred consciousness. You can deconstruct without detachment, but also sincerely engage without ignorant fanaticism.
5. Then there's the sports that are totally weirdly ruined by having to judge a winner, like gymnastics or figure skating. Both sabotauge the aesthetic power of the bodies moving through the air by the necessity to perform the expected judgeable moves, and the emphasis on just landing them over heightening the pure power and beauty of the movement. I want the Russian figure skater who dances the most movingly to win; I don't give a shit if he falls when he jumps. The guy who won did perfect jumps, but we had to endure his anxious rote simple arm-waving and overlong, aesthetically boring lead-up to the those jumps. And of course one you get caught up in thinking like the judges you're no longer really enjoying the story told by the bodies in flight. You're performing a nerdy calculus of arbitrary numbers. I'm thinking of how ridiculous the floor routine is in gymastics. It's dancing ruined by interrupting it with rather unartistic feats of pure athleticism that justify calling it a sport and ranking winners. The poor girls look embarassingly without rhythm and soul compared to real dancers as they prance around to whatever's trendy in the insular world of gymnastics that year, then spend too long in the corner of the mat not dancing but prepping their body for one of the show-off and judge me moments. What a bastardization to try to make a judgeable sport out of dance. Still, you gotta love the bizarreness of it. When football players dance they get penalized.
6. The sports that seem designed with arbitrary conditions that obviously don't have the most natural, graceful conditions for the proposed work of the bodies in competition in mind. For example, beach volleyball is just volleyball where the athletes dress like getting a tan or finding a mate matter more than comfortable maximized athletic performance, and it's is played on a surface drastically reducing the speed and manuevearability of the players. It's like inventing a new tennis that has to be played underwater. Or how about the biathlon? It's always odd to watch people race on skis across flat ground, when you're thinking--why don't do downhill? Don't you feel like being world champion going 80 times slower than the last place guy going downhill just means you're not really FIRST? I'm just riffing, the way these defamiliarizing sports lead me to do. I know perfectly well the endurance required in cross-country privileges self-overcoming more than being the fastest possible (or else they'd be going downhill), which is a nice reminder that we should be admiring and rewarding not just those who fit the capitalist model of success: fastest, strongest, opponent overwhelming, pulling in the most points or money; and fits a more philosophical notion of heroism that privileges capacties for self-overcoming and self-mastery that don't necessarily make you able to ovecome another person in direct combat or make you very 'useful' to society (A boxer or football player would make good soldiers or defenders of damsels in distress).
Okay, but then to make the skier stop and shoot targets with a rifle occasionally? What the hell? Can we put anything together? I want a sport where you have to be the first ice skater around the track while still having time to draw a passable version of Edward Munch's "The Scream". Winner determined by a special equation of fastest skater and creator of art that most impresses the art critic judges, who themselves operate the stopwatch, too, and are so delighted and thrown for a loop by the combination that it really boosts the originality of their non athletic critical pieces that year. In the art world they say: "it's an Olympic year! The art journals will be wild this year!"
7. Then there's the sports that are absurd because they take what in your experience is a party hobby that belongs at home and take it downtown and give it the ritualistic trappings of any sport, so you feel like we're all eavesdropping into the most important family room in the country, with people who spend all their time training to be the best at Friday night hangout session with the buddies. I'm talking Olympic table tennis of course! It's also bemusing to watch an athlete who barely moves his body, has no need for muscles or cardiovascular fitness, and whose outfit has no real purpose vis-a-vis his sport. These kinds of things just remind you that you can make meaning almost anywhere, and that things that seem like really important and interesting achievments to some people might very well seem like the most boring and unimportant achievment possible to others, reminding one of the daunting and easily forgettable diversity of human beings and their values or tastes. And how cool is it that there's a sport that allows scrawny, nerdy, asthmatic, aspergers kids to dream realistically of being a world champion? If they had a sport available for conquest by creative gadfly types most gifted with words and most drawn to leading friends in invented rituals, I would have possessed so much more self-confidence growing up.
8. It's also really useful that most of the sports are not interesting enough to really focus on very consistently or attentively, but not boring enough to not positively affect whatever else you're doing--writing stories, indulging in a long, unhurried conversation on the phone or video chat, writing letters and postcards, practicing a foreign language. The World Cup is way more exciting for me, but when its over I have little to show for it. After the Olympics I have a bunch of creatively completed pieces of work and tasks and a new consciousness. Sometimes my wife or girlfriend walk in the room and say: "Why is that on? You're barely even watching it?" Me: "Would you do more than barely watch weightlifting? And would you want to spend one hour talking to your mother without the epic battle between Abbas Alqaisoum and Aliaksandr Makaranka to lift more weight there in the background, in order to keep a little healthy absurdity available?" Needless to say, I usually spend the two weeks alone.