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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Olympics Mirror The World's Priorities

The Olympic moment was inspiring. After the men's semifinal 400 meter race, the winner, Grenada's world champion, Kirani James, swapped numbers with South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, who ran with two protheses, to show respect for this particular competitor (see here). The moment itself deserved a gold medal, but that was not in the cards.

Another gold medal merited moment came Sara Attar became Saudi Arabia's first female Olympic track competitor (see here). She dressed differently from the other runners because she wanted to dress appropriately as a Muslim. She ran the 800m race and finished 43 seconds behind the winner. But her efforts merit a gold medal that she will never see.

Why won't we see gold medals awarded for either of the above events? Perhaps it is because the Olympics also hold to the same values society does. Though the human moments of Olympics receive an honorable mention, the actual rewards come in the form of the Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals awarded to the top three competitors. And domination is rewarded  not only in the awarding of medals but in the fact that only the Gold Medal winners have their national anthems played while the others must politely stand at attention.

And what is most remembered, especially in the countries that have the most, is the medal count. How many total medals has my country won and how many of them were Gold Medals are the questions that too many citizens from these countries ask. Sportsmanship and compassion are nice but they do not win medals. So such attributes are considered to be luxuries rather than treasures.

When we look at society, we see that most people look at their personal wealth in the same way that nations do at Olympic medals. Those with the most gain more recognition and a privileged place in society. Their higher status gives them the opportunity and means to dominate those below. And perhaps, some at the top will show themselves to be philanthropists. But such is a luxury that is unnecessary to keep one's place. Here, what is valued is what one financially accomplishes for oneself and this is measured as discretely as counting Olympic medals. Human attributes such as compassion and mercy, if not ignored, are never rewarded with society's highest award--money.

Also consider what society regards as progress. It is technology. As one minister put it, the Indians whom our forefathers met were from the Stone Age. And what is the technological enterprise other than to remove us as far as possible from nature, as a friend and fellow activist said to me.

The problem here is with our perception. To think that the Americans Indians were primitive because they lacked our technology is to miss the fact that these same people were ecologically brilliant. I remember a personal tour that the wife and I took led by a friend and biologist from a Christian university where our tour guide explained to us the many ways in which  American Indians made the environment work for them as opposed to the European settlers who saw the environment as just one more obstacle to overcome in building their toy kingdoms. We should also note here that bad ecological decisions significantly contributed to the environmental disaster that Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans. So here we have a parallel where nature is to progress what human attributes like compassion and caring are to our economic system and the Olympics. Certainly lip service will be paid to environmental concern, mercy, peacemaking and such; but the bottom line is currency, medals and gadgets.  Thus, we have learned to trade nature and humanity in for what is artificial.

Despite the negative vibes expressed above, I am not saying that we should eliminate the Olympics and all competition. We should note that many of the Olympic participants have a better glimpse of what is most important than the rest of the world. To the world, the Olympics is about winning, medal counts, and national pride. And certainly, the participants have no shortage of national pride. But these athletes can also interact with each other without boundaries. They can learn to appreciate and respect others as peers and people despite the competition and varying cultures and languages. But much of their bridge building will never be perceived, let alone appreciated, by the public.

But the international friendships initiated at the Olympics do not adequately focus the world's attention on best parts of being human. In fact, we have very few ways of recognizing these parts. This only reinforces the idea that traits like compassion and peacemaking are luxuries that rarely mean anything in the real world. And for as long as performance and productivity are elevated above caring for others and the ability to forgive, we are doomed to self-destruction.

There is another example where the Olympics models society. The closing ceremony contained a salute to the history of British popular music. For the most part, what was celebrated was the feel-good music produced by British rock groups. But the musical group doing the most important work of all groups was never mentioned. One reason might be because this group is a Russian punk rock group. Another reason just might be because of the name of this Russian group: Pussy Riot. And though I am neither a fan of any rock music nor of the group's name, this group deserves to stand on a podium by itself with a slew of Olympic Gold Medals for the courage they have exhibited in standing up to the authoritarian and oppressive Russian government and the collusion that exists between Russia's worst leaders and the Russian Orthodox Church. I guess that America is not the only country where the Church serves as an institution of indoctrination.

Currently, three members of Pussy Riot are on trial for a "punk prayer" protest performance they conducted in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior (see performance). The Russian prosecutors want them sentenced to three years in prison because they claim that these dissidents pose a "danger to society" because of how they offended Russian Orthodoxy (read here). Apparently, freedom never really came to Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. And the most important human attributes exhibited by these musicians were never given their due during the closing ceremonies.







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