The Olympics needs more politics

Whenever I hear or read a discussion about the Olympics and political issues, be they human rights, censorship, or what have you, eventually someone says, "Why can't we take the politics out of the Olympics, and just make it about the athletes and the competition?" Oddly, the answer to this question begins just like the answer I give my eight year old when he asks why we can't do something that he would like to do and I would not.

Because we just can't, that's why. Politics and the Olympics are as frustratingly intertwined as that string of Christmas lights that you swore you would put away nicely and neatly organized, and yet, come December, you'll be cursing again as it comes out of the box hopelessly entangled.

In Sunday's New York Times, Tom Scocca argued, quite effectively, that much of the treasured symbolism attached to the modern Olympics came into being at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, and, as a result, now "the Olympic Games are also, as a matter of record, a fascist spectacle, sustained by global corporatism." Hey, if we're going to blame anyone, why not start with Hitler? But if we look at the history of the Olympics since Berlin, it's clear that political issues - local, national, and/or global - have played a role, whether as context or something more substantial, but often the political environment of the Games makes them that much better, that much more memorable.

We remember athletes like Cathy Freeman in Sydney; her victory lap carrying both the Australian flag and the "unofficial" Aboriginal flag emphatically articulated her pride in her status as the first individual Aboriginal gold medalist. Freeman ran a respectable time, one of the 10 best all-time, but we remember her because of the context, because of the attention she brought to her heritage, an issue of no small importance in Australia, and because she rose to the occasion in her homeland. Similarly, we remember Katarina Witt's poignant, moving tribute to a war-torn Sarajevo at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer.

On sheer volume, most Olympic performances are forgotten by all but those people closest to the competitors. Some, like Bob Beamon's long jump, are distinguished by the stunning magnitude of the achievement. But, by and large, what we remember is the emotion of the athletes, the drama of the moment (the thrill of victory - and the agony of defeat), occasionally magnified by a larger significance.

Which is why I propose that instead of trying to take politics out of the Olympics, we do the opposite, and inject more and more and more, until the Olympics are as juiced as a mid-1990s major league baseball slugger. If Turkey wants to join the European Union, fine, but they're going to have to win at least five gold medals in Beijing to get into the club. Otherwise, you Turks are stuck in the global economic backwater. Likewise, the G8 should be made up of the top eight nations in the medal count of the most recent games (so long, Canada and Great Britain; hello, China and Australia). Here at home, let's settle the presidential election by decathlon; forget about super delegates, let's talk superheavyweights. Oil crisis? Simply index the price of a gallon of gas to the women's 1500 meter time (current world record, 3:50.46); I think that might make us all stand up and cheer.

Okay, so there are a few flaws with this plan (like if it had been in place in the 1970s, I'd be blogging for about the Spartakiads right now). But you can't separate politics from the Olympics, no more than you can separate politics from great art, music or literature. If you believe that the Olympic Games represent athletic virtuosity, the highest ideals of sport, then trying to eviscerate them of all political significance is like trying to discuss Picasso's "Guernica" without any reference to the horrors of modern warfare. You are left with some guys running real fast and a very confusing, if precisely painted, black and white mural.

Is it more complicated? Sure. More difficult? Maybe, but why do you think an aging Luciano Pavarotti performed at the 2006 Winter Olympics in his native Italy? And why are we going to enjoy the sublime genius of Lang Lang in Friday's Opening Ceremony? Because the host country wants the world to see its best, and the best want the world to see them there. Look, it's not as if the fate of the planet rests in every table tennis match point or synchronized swimming score. But occasionally, thankfully, the Olympics are about a little more than swifter, higher, stronger.

Photo via Getty Images