Games of the gods

Hallie Beard

Column by Hallie Beard, Opinion Editor

Ah, the Olympics: the drama-filled spectacle of jaw-dropping events that comes around every four years and makes Americans everywhere puff out their chests and don starred and striped sweatbands.

Complete with robbery claims (looking at you, Ryan Lochte), flying machines (Simone Biles, scientists will figure out how you work) and a plethora of sexist commentary (too many commentators to list, sadly), Rio’s 2016 Olympics were certainly one for the books. The U.S. racked up 121 gold medals overall with women responsible for 61 of those, and newer talent like Katie Ledecky blew us out of the water.

In short, Americans had plenty of reasons to be prideful (and a few embarrassing reasons not to be).

As many viewers probably did, I liked to supplement my Olympic TV marathons with snack breaks, gymnastic attempts and the occasional scroll through my Twitter feed to catch interesting commentary.

While scrolling, I came across a tweet by one of my favorite accounts, “jomny sun” (@jonnysun, an alien-like character who makes beautiful and poignant observations about pop culture on earth, often with intentional misspellings). It read: “ppl still watch the Olympics to prove who has the best country instead of seeing it as a testament that amazing ppl come from everywhere.”

Just as I was about to chant “U-S-A, U-S-A!” with a fistful of potato chips in hand, this tweet opened my prideful heart. You might say I checked myself before I wrecked myself.

Why is it that we become so obsessed with the dominance of our country in an event such as the Olympics? Yes, I realize the nature of sport is competitive, and the Olympics are traditionally a competition at heart.

But, then again – is that what they really are, or were?

After some poking around on History.com, I found that the original Olympics – an ancient Greek event – was not so much a fierce competition as a challenging display of human ability to please the gods. The races were, in a way, a religious celebration, a testament of strength and endurance that Zeus could applaud.

The Olympics went through several changes and phases of death and revival before becoming what we know today. After the power-hungry Romans conquered Greece and took over the Olympic Games, things got a little unsteady: Emperor Nero – who was kind of terrible in every way, as a leader and person – decided chariot racing would be an event, and that he would be the winner, despite the fact that he fell out of his chariot.

Isn’t it strange that, as soon as someone became inflated with hubris and the idea of winning, the games lost their magic for a couple thousand years?

While our idea of the Olympics is generally positive now, I can’t help but think how much more glorious they’d be if we decided to look at it as a celebration rather than a competition.

Would we even care about Simone Biles, Michael Phelps or Simone Manuel if they weren’t on our team? I love seeing that red, white and blue at No. 1 as much as the next guy, but I also wouldn’t mind seeing more coverage of incredible human talent.

Maybe it would take another few hundred years to change significantly, but imagine a version of the games that is solely focused on exhibiting and commemorating the sheer brilliance of the human race in all our forms and skills. A national Cirque du Soleil broadcast for the world to see – maybe with a few gold medals thrown in.

Time will tell if my bloated American pride fades, but maybe in 2020 I’ll feel joyous touting more flags than one.