Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Olympics: One World

When I decided to go to the London Olympic games, some acquaintances tried to talk me out of it, on the grounds that the IOC was entirely corrupt and picked host cities based on bribery. That may or may not be true. The only Olympic athletes I knew--a handful of eventers--were not themselves corrupt, and I wasn't going so that I could watch the IOC.

I didn't understand until I was there why we need the Olympics: it shrinks the world.

In Wembley arena, a Norwegian woman and a Chinese woman began a badminton match. A few fans on one side of the arena yelled out, "Norway, Norway!" [clap, clap, clap]. A moment later, a man on the other side stood and yelled, "Chi-NA!"

Ten seconds later the entire arena was chanting. Chi-NA! Chi-NA! on one side, Norway, Norway! [clap, clap, clap] on the other. Between points the players looked up at the stands in wonder.

A handful of Koreans sitting near me during a fencing match had developed a long, complicated chant. It was entirely in Korean, so I have no idea what it meant. But partway through the match, the lead Korean leaned over and tapped the person in front of him on the shoulder. Gesturing, he asked them to display their flag. "Ah!" he said, "Panama!" From then on, the long Korean chant ended with "PANAMA!" (There were no Panamanian fencers.)

My daughter and I are walking through the Olympic village. We stop at the outdoor broadcast booth for the United States tv feed. Hoping to get on prime time, we wave our flag and yell, "USA! USA!' Behind us, a pair of Australians break out their flag and yell, "AUS! AUS!" until all four of us are collapsing with laughter.

Over and over, the audience cheers. For the victors and the losers and the ones in between. In eventing, a Japanese man gets the best score in dressage. He's very unlikely to medal, because he's never done well at the other two phases, but even before his score is posted the audience is on their feet, screaming like crazy, because his test was poetry. When his score went up he burst into tears.

People talk in line and in stands, on ferries, on the Tube. Over and over, we share our stories. Where we are from, why we are there, who we care about. At the lunch break in fencing I ask the Korean man leading the chants, "Family?" and point to the pistes.  "Ah," he says. "No. Friends."

We were all friends, watching the Games.