As late as a month ago, it felt like the spotlight would never shift. The focus of these Olympics, held in the city of Beijing, would forever focus on China’s socio-political problems.
The essays would center on China’s human rights troubles, on the country’s occupation of Tibet, on its repeated violation of U.S. copyright laws and the smog that sullied the various sports venues.
Then, after the opening ceremonies, the world’s athletes changed the focus. As the Games officially began, we are forgetting about the host country’s flaws as these stars take center stage and begin to outshine everything around them. Good.
The chorus of yells protesting Tibet’s occupation were drowned out by choruses of cheers for beach volleyballers Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh, for the Chinese men’s basketball team and living legend Yao Ming, and the so-called “Redeem Team” of American hoopsters led by Kobe Bryant, who may be even more popular than Yao.
There have been the unreal achievements of American swimmer Michael Phelps, so far five gold medals paired with five world records. And there have been the agonizing, oh-so-close endings of Katie Hoff, who narrowly finished fourth twice on Tuesday night (in America).
And Phelps’s celebrated quest for an unprecedented eight gold medals would be over if not for the Herculean efforts of American anchor swimmer Jason Lezak, who vaulted past the leading French on the final leg of the men’s 400m freestyle relay.
Though the world knew about Phelps and his impending future on the front of the Wheaties box, it has been introduced to athletes like Shawn Johnson, the sprite-like female gymnast who looks like she could fit inside a box of Lucky Charms. Her constant grin would certainly fit in there. Even as she and her teammates watched China defeat them for the gold medal in the team gymnastics competition, the bubbly Johnson beamed as she embraced her disheartened teammates.
As China and the U.S. battle for the top spot in the medal count, the bottom of standings offer more new names, like Rishod Sobirov, who claimed the lone medal, a bronze in Judo, for Uzbekistan.
While NBC and other news outlets have not entirely forsaken the sad storylines that made the world skeptical of China’s status as an Olympic host, the essays have more often adopted a whimsical tone.
On Saturday, former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw, a man who has interviewed countless world leaders, sat down with Phelps’s mother as she retold the story of how her son’s inaccessibility during the Olympics and his training led her to learn how to text message.
“I don’t know all the acronyms yet, but I’m learning,” she said.
Brokaw, the man who covered Watergate as a White House correspondent and was the first American newsman to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, drew his head back slightly, pursed his lips and asked, “Do you know what ‘LOL’ means?”
What was that again Tom? OMG, that left me ROFL with my BFFs.
There is no escaping, entirely, the political overtones during the games. Indeed, they have famously overlapped with previous politically poignant moments: The hostage crisis in Munich, the black-glove protest of Tommy Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, the boycott of the 1980 Moscow games by the U.S. and the retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles games by the Soviet Union.
The attachment of political context is far from a unique occurrence, but that doesn’t mean such stories always deserve to abduct the focus of the Games from the athletes. These men and women have often worked their entire lives to achieve their status as Olympians. Give them 16 days to enjoy it.
Let’s leave the barrage of bad news lie for a few weeks. Over the next four years, there will be plenty of time to discuss it. Let’s just look at what happens when the world’s best athletes come together. We might even learn something.
Such was the case in the women’s 10-meter air pistol competition. Even as their countries engaged in an all-out hot war, bronze medalist Nino Salukvadze of Georgia and silver medalist Natalia Paderina of Russia shared the medal platform, embraced and kissed each other on the cheek, both of them were all smiles.
There will always be political causes. There will always be economic inequalities. There will always be reasons to raise voices in protest. For two weeks, we can take a break. Let’s repay these athletes’ lifetimes of hard work with our attention. Let’s see differences settled on the athletic field. Let’s just enjoy all of this right now. Because I guarantee you, the strife, the smog and the other sullen story lines will all be waiting for us after the Closing Ceremonies.