There are a number of things in this world that I have little direct interest in: cookery programmes; the fashion industry; or TV shows from Shonda Rhimes. But that doesn’t stop me appreciating their wider social impact. It’s not difficult to comprehend the significance of Nadiya Hussain, Jourdan Dunn, or Shonda Rhimes’s influence on Western popular culture.
It’s with this in mind that Media Diversified begins its series of articles on the upcoming Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Rio. I confess on the rare occasions I penned a missive about sport on this site, it brought with it a degree of worry that the reader would go little further than the opening paragraph, before dismissing the piece out of hand.
I’m not ignorant of the way that in a space normally reserved for social, cultural, and political commentary, sport is largely viewed as an incongruous and unwelcome interloper, and while that’s not an entirely fair response, there are reasons that make such a reaction understandable. Sport doesn’t help itself when its media leans towards eschewing analysis beyond the final result on the scoreboard, eliding and excusing reprehensible behaviour from its practitioners. Also, the ubiquitous and esoteric nature of the coverage makes it difficult to engage those who aren’t already ensconced in its bubble. It would be like using Season 6 of The Sopranos as your entry point into the show.
That all said, the Olympics and Paralympics has a unique ability to convert the sports atheist, as global sporting events tend to be one of the few communal experiences we have as a body politic. Aspects of this appeal, such as nationalism, will be covered later in our series, but an ancillary factor is that athletics is the centrepiece of the Games, consisting of events that – while not simplistic – are simple to comprehend: run fast; throw far; jump high.
It also functions as a calling card for many athletes. Sport is life’s greatest reality TV show, replete with compelling tales. Audiences will marvel at people they hadn’t previously heard of, in sports they hadn’t previously watched. What we thought possible about the human body will be redefined. To quote Matthew Syed, “Isn’t this the meaning of sport: the evolutionary process in athletic form?”
Now it would be imprudent not to acknowledge that some of this process won’t be evolutionary, but chemically assisted. We’ll have an article on performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in a few days time, but for now I’ll say this: it’s probable that plenty of medals will be captured fraudulently, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that every winner in Rio will be a cheat. As far as PEDs go, I suspect everyone, and suspect no-one. I never immediately assume that an athlete is doping, but I’m never surprised if it transpires that they are.
And of course, there’s the miasma of social problems that are currently blighting Brazil (don’t worry, we’ll be addressing that one as well in due course). Dave Zirin observed the dichotomy between loathing the corruption and enjoying the competition in the following two statements: “Olympic myth plus political opportunism equals the mistreatment of marginalized populations”, and, “We don’t love sport because we are like babies suckling at the teat of constant distraction. We love it because it’s exciting, interesting and at its best, rises to the level of art.”
I can say with confidence that more works of art will be displayed in Rio. I can say that because of past history: Usain Bolt’s foray into nominative determinism; Nadia Comăneci showing that perfection is possible; Bob Beamon briefly divorcing himself from gravity. There’s little I derive greater vicarious pleasure from than witnessing excellence. People who show the best of themselves through self-expression. That’s probably why I’m so bound to the world of sport, as it provides easily accessible examples of high achievement, and much like being on a rollercoaster, is a vector for extreme – if ephemeral – human emotion.
The mass corporatisation, the exploitation of the Brazilian people, the potential for terror attacks, and politicians’ attempts to piggyback on athletes’ success only serves to dehumanise the wonder of the Games. But as much as greed has tried to poison this reservoir, the water (just about) remains edible. Even when surrounded by environs of ugliness, there’s a beauty in sport that endures. It puts one in mind of the Tupac Shakur poem about the “The Rose That Grew from Concrete.”
With this series, we’re trying to produce both a document of the summer in Rio, and explicate the importance in sport’s inherent triviality. The Olympics and Paralympics distilled lend to the best of sport: joy. Pure, unvarnished, childlike, chimeric joy. For those of a politically progressive persuasion, it’s one of the few places where joy is possible.
Football journalist George Caulkin once said that what interests him about the game is that it’s “a collection of people”. That maxim could also be extended to the Olympics and Paralympics. Because it’s the people that bring the wonder, that make the whole bacchanal worth watching. The next few weeks will produce sparks of human brilliance. They may not be able to strut like Naomi, act like Denzel, or sing like Aretha, but that doesn’t dull the potency of what they can do.
And what they can do has equitable cultural resonance. We’re in a current political moment pregnant with upheaval and uncertainty. What happens in Brazil over the next couple of months will probably be a major touchstone in the societal tremors in that nation. It’s not something you’ll want to miss. We here at Media Diversified certainly won’t.
 I have a similar mindset as regards ostensibly decent white people who end up reinforcing racism.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.