Olympic Sadness

No doubt there are many sad kids around the world this weekend, since the Olympics are ending Sunday. The Olympics make me sad too. Sad for the eight-year-old whose heart broke when Waldemar Sierpinski beat Frank Shorter to win the marathon in 1976.

More so, I get sad for the 16-year-old track star – “Star”? No, I was an enthusiast, a year before becoming a quitter – who watched Carl Lewis grab a car-dealership-sized flag after his victory in the 100 meters in 1984, and recoiled at his ostentatious patriotism. Mostly, though, I’m sad for the city of Athens and the people of Greece, whose Olympic stadiums twelve years later expose the business of the Olympics for what it is, a scheme to harness idealism and public spending for private gain.

Carl Lewis

Los Angeles, 1984.

I was lucky enough to attend the games in Athens in ’04, working for a video company from L.A. Among my athletic feats, I learned Excel, so I could compile spreadsheets of the crew’s spending. On the plane ride there, I handed everyone index cards with “receipt, please” in Greek spelled out phonetically: “Ah-PO-deek-see, para-kah-LOW.” Everyone promptly discarded them, but I had a blast.

I loved Greece more than the games, which seemed like a bunch of Australians and Americans drinking massive quantities of bottled water to avoid sunstroke. My loyalties really shifted the night the USA men’s basketball team, which included Carmelo Anthony and a very young LeBron James, played the Greeks and narrowly beat them. I could see the rapt faces watching the screens around Omonoia Square, hoping for a miracle for the Greek team, a “Miracle on Ice” in reverse, and I thought of the new friends I’d made, what it meant to them. There was already talk that the Olympics were a disaster for the Greek economy; wow, how a victory in that game would have taken some of the sting out.

Days later my boss scored us tickets to see the Americans play Lithuania, another close game. This time the Americans lost. During the second half, I couldn’t contain myself anymore. “Do you realize there are only two million people in Lithuania?” I said to my coworker. I kept imagining the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for rec centers named after the Lithuanian players in their hometowns, and the palatial homes of N.B.A. players, and couldn’t help myself.

We were sitting in a section that NBC had reserved, tickets to be given out as favors, and were surrounded by Americans. Word spread from one seat to the next, that Charles is rooting for the Lithuanians, like I was the elf in the Christmas special who doesn’t want to make toys.

Did the Cold War spoil the Olympics forever? Turn it into grotesque patriotism? Do the games need another millennia-long period of dormancy before it comes back better? We can’t afford to wait that long.

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do.

athens 2014

Athens, 2014. Gaia is taking it back.