The US Olympic Swimming Trials are starting today (Monday). I love the Olympics, because it means that people generally start caring (and sportswriters writing eloquently) about the sport that I love, swimming. It helps that the most decorated Olympian of all time (Michael Phelps) is a swimmer. It also means wall-to-wall television coverage that I can watch, geek out over, and, for the first time, share with my kids.
I’ll watch just about anything and everything at the Olympics. I have a preference for the aquatic events (diving, water polo, swimming, and even synchro – you have no idea unless you’ve done it, which I have), but I’ll watch all of it: fencing, track, gymnastic, rowing, kayak, table tennis (my best friend in college was a high-level table-tennis player. Seriously). The drama, the back stories, the tragedy and triumph – it’s the stuff of high art.
And this is why I was so dismayed to read that there is a book decrying sports, specifically the Olympic movement. I can understand criticizing the crass commercialism and massive costs the Olympics now represent, but for most of us who practiced sports in which there is no professional league, no massive marketing deals, and largely anonymity the 3.5 years between Olympics and the Olympic hype, the Olympics represent a celebration of largely thankless sacrifice, both personal and physical. I might never have come anywhere close to being in the Olympics, but I know the mental and physical toughness that these athletes must have to have made it.
It is, indeed, great theater. The rise and the falls. The epic failures and disappointments. The upsets. And as spectators, we never know what is going to happen. We don’t know how the script will play out. And perhaps it is opiate to the masses, the circuses used to distract us from larger realities. But just like great theater, there is beauty to found in these sports. A perfectly swam race, to me, is a thing of absolute beauty. Ian Thorpe, the great Australian freestyler, made my heart hurt when he swam, his stroke and races were so perfect. Like any great artist, they make it look easy, effortless, but I know the work that went in. I can sit back and aesthetically appreciate the beauty of Thorpe’s racing, Phelps’ butterfly (I can’t believe how perfect his stroke still looks at the end of his 200, but then again, that’s why he’s the best there ever was). In the same way that I am moved by a beautiful piece of music, or dance, or play, or work of art, I am moved by a perfect race.
That, I think, was the one element that was missing from Scott McLemee’s critique; he admits that he isn’t a sport fan, and that shows when the argument that sports can be beautiful is never made. Certainly, it can be barbaric, cut-throat, and crass, but it can also be personal and special in the same ways as great art can be. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.