Why I am not an Olympian
Canada is objectively one of the best countries in the world. It was a tremendous stroke of good fortune for me to be born here, rather than many elsewheres. But happenstance alone should not engender pride. Canada maintains some good graces in calculated ways, and for this the citizen can be grateful on a daily basis. Mostly civil, somewhat tolerant, with a general sense of fair play and a reasonable boundary of scandal or yet evil, to be Canadian is to be aware of the centeredness of sociality in a manner most other nations either struggle with or have entirely forfeited.
Even so, there remains much to be done. To the ongoing challenge of governing a diverse and geographically vast land wherein increasingly voices are heard across the political spectrum which issue demands that suggest exclusivity and even outright exclusion, one must in addition provide a balance of rights and responsibilities both under the law and within an enlightenment ethics. Our legal system and our ethics are mostly foreign to those who arrive on our shores, and this is to be expected. But that they are sometimes shunned by those who understand Canada as a part of who they themselves are is something to be greeted with stringent reproach. There are numerous examples, from the PMO’s fast and loose definition of professional ethics, to section 43 violators – almost exclusively parents – to those who at least feign disbelief about the current public health crisis. Let us not forget those who ape regressive ideologies such as ethnic supremacies, regional nationalisms, sectarian reactionaries and throwbacks, and wealthy elites who imagine neither law nor ethics applies to their sainted natures. Canada has a surfeit of all of these and others alike.
Yet the mere presence of such persons, claiming citizenship but on their own terms, is not enough to pass up clambering onto the epic mountain range upon which the Gods would stand. No, it is that we consistently both deny and obfuscate setting our fellow residents straight on some simple topics regarding both behavior and thinking that forces one to eschew these heady heights. Instead, we tend to distract ourselves by entertainment fictions and spectacles. The most grandiose, and the most dangerous, of these collective distractions is the Olympic Games.
Hitler’s film director, Leni Riefenstahl, an artist of the alpine apexes caught up in darkest depths of the valley of fear, nailed the Olympics early on. The 1936 games, from which most of our contemporary hype, such as the torch run, is directly borrowed, was filmed by her and given sub-titles concerning the ‘celebration or festival of youth and beauty’. Certainly this is the kernel of the whole affair at the subjective level. Youth is the fetish of all modernity. Beauty is embodied by youth and youth alone. No longer a kind of transcendental conception, taking its place alongside the good and truth, beauty has become an esthetic spectacle, and one that exists solely because of voyeurism and its accompanying ressentiment. There is little doubt that almost all male viewers and about one-fifth of those female witness many Olympian events as a form of soft-core pornography, including rhythmic and artistic gymnastics, swimming and diving, sprinting events, figure skating, etc.. The fact that coaches of these sports versus others are much more likely to engage in criminal behavior should be noted as part of the overall fetish of youth and beauty combined. Not that any of this has an authentic sexuality about it. Rather its sensuality is Orwellian, at once a profanity and a mystery, something all covet and lust after but something about which one must remain silent. It is not the presence of the athlete but the appearance of her body that is paramount. A body put through its paces, a body disciplined, a body beautiful but aloof to intimate entreaty, a body ideological, a body disembodied from both its happenstance truth and its potential for the ethical good.
Sontag’s sense of the ‘fascist aesthetic’, however misplaced when applied to Riefenstahl’s visual ethnographies of East Africa, remains absolutely applicable to the Olympic Games. It surrounds us on all sides, as if we were Minsk in 1941, even as if we were some gentler version of the camps. Yes, even that, for shame. Private sector companies flaunt this esthetic with endless posters, banners hanging from the rafters, images on labels, cashiers asking for donations, life-size images of the athletes in question. And who do you imagine invented all of this? The summer games is certainly more imposing than its winter counterpart, but nonetheless, a country like Canada regresses every two years into a kind of fourth reich symbolic status. The Reich itself had little to do, at the end of the day, with ethnicity proper and primary. No, it was about creating a new kind of Man, ‘men as gods’, to borrow from Wells, and this is precisely how the youthful athletes are portrayed, as gods on earth, as Olympians after all. A new race requires above all a new esthetic. And this was the simpler aspect of neo-ontological fetish. That it as well would require a new ethics, also superior, conveniently escaped the Nazis’ purview.
And it also escapes our own. Why is there poverty in a wealthy country such as ours? Why is there child abuse? Why are there charter schools for the privileged in a nation that prides itself on democracy? Why are Indigenous peoples without potable water etc.? Why do our courageous military professionals risk themselves flying, riding, hiking, diving, on their courage alone? One obverse analogy: The Olympian dives into a safe pool of water with the backing of private and public sector glad-hands. Our submariners dive into the open ocean on a diesel-electric wing and a prayer. Why do many of our fellow citizens desire a different kind of Canada? What, exactly, are we missing about ourselves that no distraction could ever uncover?
It is the simple experience of inequality; in justice, in gender, in opportunity, in housing, in education, in pedigree, in punditry, in birth, in life and even in death. The fascism of the Olympian esthetic only highlights these inequalities, and for that reason alone all athletes should refuse to participate in a festival that fetishizes both their bodies and the State alike. Only when the reality of Canadian life ascends beyond its faux ideals and addresses bodily all of the injustice remaining in this relatively beautiful place should you slip into that red and white leotard and proclaim that your ideal body is genuinely the embodiment of an ideal body-politic. Now that would be something in which anyone might take pride.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over 45 books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.