Friday night, my husband and I got together with two of our sons—Simon and Christian—and our friend Cindy to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio.
We made an event of it. We set up TV tables in the livingroom, grilled some pork chops on the bar-b-que and opened a bottle of delicious red wine.
Friday was a scorcher in Montreal. Thirty-three degrees Celsius (91.4 Farenheit), and my livingroom isn’t air-conditioned. The only thing providing even the slightest illusion of coolness was the rotating floor fan. I bet it was a lot fresher in Brazil.
But we hung in there, and I’m trying to figure out why.
As is often the case, Simon was our event planner, which is probably the most important piece of this puzzle, because last night was about all of us following his lead. Which we often do. Easily and happily. Simon has an affinity for shared joy and we’re smart enough to tag along.
Part of the equation is the TV itself. It stands in as a hearth—though it felt more like there was a bonfire in the room— and we love to gather around it. We do this on Super Bowl Sunday despite the fact that our sons have no interest in football. We do it on provincial and federal election nights when the stakes always seem to be high and the only thing that makes the tension bearable is being together to endure it. We also do it when a movie we saw and loved in the cinema is released on DVD and when Netflix has just introduced a terrific new series. Small traditions.
These are hard times for idealists. Among other things, this has been the year of Donald Trump, of Sepp Blatter’s undoing and of the Russian doping scandal. Of the I.O.C. and FIFA being true to form: sports federations acting like cartels.
And yet still we wanted to watch.
This is the mystery. We aren’t naïve, nor are we flag waving patriots—we’re pretty much run of the mill Canadians and Québécois: not a jingoistic cell in our bodies. But when the Games come around and the media buzz starts, we can’t help but be drawn in.
We love to watch the sports that still seem amateur, like rowing, diving, canoing and swimming (no one goes into rowing for the money). We’re captivated by the personal stories that emerge during the Games and the surprises, like Simon Whitfield’s gold medal in Sydney.
We love the human drama and we love the performances. We’re drawn to the metaphor of the Games as a global gathering place, which has real meaning—especially for me.
But as I sat watching Rio’s opening ceremony, something was missing, and it was hard to ignore this absence.
There was no moment of visual poetry like the archer lighting the cauldron in Barcelona; no young Céline Dion—just 24 at the time—filling the massive stadium in Atlanta with her voice, singing to an audience of billions without a tremor; and no Shayne Koyczan standing alone with a mic, speaking the words of We Are More with a ferocious passion the likes of which Canadians rarely experience.
Maybe, with Olympics now arriving in two year cycles, it isn’t possible to keep feeling the same excitement.
Maybe it’s because I watched the 2012 London Summer Games opening ceremony in a hotel room across from the Gare de Lyon in Paris: an impossibly improbable (but real) and incomparable moment in my life against which this time paled.
I saw that Christian—the youngest of us at 25—was perplexed by our loyalty to an event and an organisation that lost its integrity decades ago (I know that he would say in 1936).
Well, I do share Christian’s disillusionment. I remember the 1976 Summer Games because my summer job had me working at the central message service in the Games headquarters downtown (while my then future husband worked as a security guard at the Olympic Stadium). The scale and budget of those Games weren’t yet immoral.
My memories of Montreal’s opening ceremony are of a pre-digital non-extravaganza that included rather innocent, folkloric choreographies and costumes. I can still see Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson, young and flawless (and very white), as they lit the Olympic flame.
But of course, those Games burdened Quebec’s citizens with a debt that it took thirty years to clear. None of us feel wistful about that. But at least our stadium is still standing and most of the installations were repurposed and have enhanced the city’s life.
Several host countries since then have not even had our good fortune, including Greece, Russia, Bosnia and China. Many of their Olympic sites look like wrecked ships dredged up from the ocean floor, or an area trashed by a hedonistic mob.
I sometimes feel like I could be buried alive in the cynicism of the times. It certainly seems like 21st technology—especially I.T.—has blasted the doors open to the commodification of everything. That makes it perversely easy to devalue everything and see nothing but rapacious greed and corruption beneath the veneer of the human world.
Last Friday night, watching events in Rio, I felt myself swaying in that direction.
And then, the following morning, the first thing my husband did upon waking was turn on the TV and set it to the CBC’s coverage of the Games. And the room was filled with the voices of broadcasters in their temporary high profile assignments enthusiastically describing events.
For the sixteen days of the Games, the TV will stay on most of the day and evening (sometimes with the volume turned down, but there nevertheless). This constant streaming makes our home feel more open and alive. It just does.
My sister-in-law confessed to me a couple of days ago that she prefers to watch the Games alone because then she feels free to jump and scream and rant and rave and cry unself-consciously. She says that she can’t explain what comes over her and she doesn’t care.
That sympathetic response that’s being set off in her is felt by millions of viewers of the Games.
Last night, a gawky sixteen year-old Canadian swimmer named Penny Oleksiak stepped onto the blocks at the swimming pool in Rio and ripped through the water doing the 100m butterfly so fast that the fluid displacement created a mini tsunami behind her. She isn’t swimming for money, or to move a political agenda ahead, or to increase her power and influence.
Though she mostly looked awkward, nonplussed and then elated on land with her silver medal hanging from her neck, Penny Oleksiak was and is a kinaesthetic genius in the water: her medium.
This, to me, is the principle reason why we watch the Olympics. For the bursts of joy and ecstasy that are created by the beauty and perfection of human bodies in motion, and the elevation of the spirit that we feel as we witness them together.