I’m certainly not the first person to observe that much of the fun has gone out of watching the Olympics since the Cold War ended. Sure, America now faces an even more implacable foe than the U.S.S.R., but as Bob Costas has noted, it’s not like Al-Qaida is going to start a gymnastics team.
During the Cold War, the Olympics were a safe outlet for patriotism and nationalism. The excesses and ambiguities of American foreign policy melted away during the games. We were the good guys, and what’s more, we were the underdogs—at least at the Winter Olympics. The Communist Bloc nations afforded their athletics generous state support that was unparalleled in the West. To the Soviet athlete, achieving excellence in an Olympic sport meant that he got to enjoy material comforts that were denied to his countrymen; for an American, it meant rising every day at dawn to drive hundreds of miles across the heartland to the nearest training facility.
At the same time, the Olympics provided relief from Cold War tensions, and reminded us of our common humanity. The East German figure skater or Romanian gymnast might have been loyal communists, but it was easy to imagine them as simply cursed by birth to be born under a repressive regime, with sport their only outlet for true expression. They were worthy of our admiration.
All that’s changed. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact nations means that East European Olympic prowess has been diluted. Even during the Winter Games, America sits near the top of the medal standings. America’s material wealth has never seemed more on display during the Olympics than at Turin (I understand that American snowboarders wear outfits that are designed to hold iPods) along with its social inequities; the U.S. Winter Olympic team has all the diversity of a country club. And when a skier who boasts about competing drunk can get a corporate sponsorship, the notion that American athletes fend for themselves seems almost laughable.
Nor do the Olympics provide much of an escape from political conflict anymore. The shadow of terrorism hangs over the games as it does every large international gathering. The 2002 Salt Lake City games were as much a reminder of America vulnerability as a symbol of American resilience.
Then again, nostalgia can be a dangerous and deceptive thing. It magnifies the good while blurring the bad. It is fitting that among this year’s Oscar nominees is “Munich”, which explores the events that unfolded after the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Cold War politics disrupted the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics, with the Americans boycotting the former and the Soviets the latter.
Those boycotts are reminders that Olympians were not only vessels for our national ambitions, but also pawns in a political chess match. One suspects that they much prefer simply being athletes as opposed to archetypes. For all the scandals and commercialism, despite Tanya Harding and Bode Miller, the Olympics may be purer now than when the Stars and Stripes duked it out every four years with the Hammer and Sickle--even if they are much less interesting.