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Parade of Nations, Parade of Ignorance
One Fan's Disillusionment with the TV Games
The author tells of his infatuation with the Olympic games from early childhood--a spell unfortunately broken by ruminating on current events, US policy, and the mind-numbing chatter of American talking head celebrity
I have a confession to make. Ever since I was a kid I have always loved the Olympics. I was in love with them ever since I was old enough to cry when they were over. Four years seemed like an eternity to me then, and the pomp-encrusted folding of the flag and the extinguishing of the torch left a lump in my throat. My early memories have fused with my vicarious Olympic experiences; so much so, in fact, that in researching this article I found several surprises. My wife (who is younger than I, and not of an American TV upbringing) asked if I remembered Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Mexico games. “I was only four!” I laughed. But later, I found out that another very vivid memory was indeed from those same Games, and not 1972 as I had thought: My brothers and I spent long summer days trying to master the Fosbury Flop on a makeshift high jump apparatus in our backyard.
I’m not sure why I was so obsessed. It could have been a perfect storm of sport and mythology (another craze I went through as a kid), an irresistible attraction for a young boy. We were mystified by John Nabor’s non-flip turn, and of course Nadia Communisti (which we childishly called her at the time). My mother bears some of the blame and credit, packing up the whole crew and trekking to Montreal to spend the two Olympic weeks camped in a tent outside the city. Every day we would trek from our campground into the city to trade pins, hang out in endless lines, and occasionally score a few scalped tickets to whatever event we could. A very formative experience; even more so than my brother and I getting caught stealing from the campground candy store.
I continued my obsession, writing every elective report I remember, from 6th grade through high school, on one Olympic theme or another. To my enduring shame, I wrote a junior year cliché exercise comparing the 1936 Berlin games to the 1980 games in Moscow; I got an A from a history teacher who allotted less than two minutes of discussion to all of Marx’s theories because, well, the bell rang.
In one of life’s great ironies, as I sit writing this very paragraph, I hear announcers blabbing about the “depth and ability” of the USA men’s gymnastic team unrivalled since 1984—when the powerhouse teams of the USSR and Eastern Europe were boycotting in retaliation for the US’ 1980 boycott. My earlier memories were decidedly apolitical—Dick Fosbury over John Carlos; Mark Spitz over the tragedy of the 1972 Munich hostage debacle. By the time the Los Angeles games rolled around, my early memories were thankfully being supplanted by a new dose of adult reality. I distinctly remember feeling queasy, the hair on the back of my neck standing up at the guttural roar of the crowd screaming U..S..A….U…S.. A as our underchallenged athletes crushed all their non-communist foes. I wished I had that paper to write over again. Peter Ueberroth became the darling of the Games, and of neocons and neolibs everywhere, by selling, as I recall, everything but the kitchen sink with the Olympic logo on it—and that omission was only because Moen and Price Pfister weren’t so much in the game then.
My favorite as a kid was the Parade of Nations. I know it’s a bit silly and pompous, but I loved seeing the flags and the costumes from all over the world. As I grew, my analysis grew less naïve as I watched the growing corporatization of the games, the frantic bidding over TV rights, the cynical jockeying for hosting privileges, and the hype the media now wrings from every available visual image, not to mention the relentless hopemongers of the advertising industry. This year we almost tuned out before the Parade of Nations, so turned off by the mindless blather of Katie Couric and Bob Saccomano (yeah…whatever). My obsession won out, and we managed to sit through it. However, I am disappointed and more than a little bitter to report that the spell—as irrational and deep-set as it was—may at last have been broken.
The winner of the TV tussle, invariably, is one American network or another, insuring that a billion people worldwide will be subject to the particularly narrow and idiotic musings of Katie and Sideshow Bob. My wife and I sat, alternately stunned and laughing our heads off, at the spectacle of stupidity being foisted on the rest of the world. We muted the sound for awhile, but needed the occasionally on-point script about the abstract art history lesson that has become the opening ceremonies.
Still, it was a struggle. Sports commentary is an idiom particularly susceptible to the uniquely American corruption of avoiding silence at any cost—especially, it seems, when the speaker has nothing of any import to say. Seizing the American spirit, we half-joked about making a drinking game out of it: something like taking a shot each time we heard the hapless couple at a loss for words when a new set of funny looking brown people wandered in, always reduced to commenting on their “colorful costumes.”
Julia and I checked the calendar to make sure that this was, indeed the year 2004. Are Katie and What-About-Bob unaware of the history of the phrase Colorful Native Garb? It would be fitting. Or have we inherited every racist behavioral tick of the erstwhile British Empire in addition to its former colonies, and the quaint belief that we can regularly invade them to “bring democracy.”
The British, of course, have the faintly advantageous moral perspective of having committed the lion’s share of their atrocities in that dim period before World War II, when Everyone Did Bad Things. English families unlucky enough to give birth on the periphery of The Empire were convinced that early years in a tropical climate were unhealthy (too young to temper the humidity with gin, I guess.) For this reason, Rudyard Kipling, at least according to his Puffin Classic bio, was sent away from India at the age of six. Hundreds of millions born there are just shit-out-of-luck, I suppose….
But in 2004, more than a century after Gunga Din, the whole world is still hostage to this Anglocentric commentary. The empire dissolves, slavery is over, gays can get married, and then, Bob’s-your-uncle, the Colorful Garb is back. This incarnation is savvier, though—Bob knew to mention Greeks’ displeasure with “American foreign policy past and present,” without ever mentioning the ongoing slaughter in Iraq.
Crowd reaction was sifted and interpreted by the two cosmopolitan commentators, saving those watching the trouble of thinking for themselves. Viewers were treated to proxy tour of Americans’ world vision, appropriately abbreviated and simplified (of course) to suit the US palate. When Arabs appeared, the conversation mysteriously drifted back to security; new adventures in US imperialism were given special attention. An Afghan team appeared (featuring actual women for the first time!). Never mind the US target range of a country they left behind, or that their two week respite from hell was facilitated by the US military; likewise with the Iraqi delegation.
Qatar was famous for, among nothing else in particular, serving as “headquarters for the US Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Well, Gosh! I think I preferred the colorful native garb. Taiwan, Korea, American Samoa and others were accompanied by long-winded explanations of their geopolitical status and the origins of their Olympic team. Palestine, whose two athletes received arguably the greatest roar of the Parade, met with an awkward pause from the uncharacteristically silenced hosts.
The sad part is that the Parade of Shame will go almost unnoticed inside the US. The overwhelmingly ego-(amerigo?)centric perspective reflects a universal national ignorance of the rest of the world. Neither talking head will lose their jobs over their asinine jokes—they will instead be heralded as perfect representations of American “worldliness.” The smooth, saccharine patter that ignores the politically reality in which these games are taking place knows no party, and has no cogent opposition within our borders. As Americans, we are too stupid, too force-fed, too lazy to look around and see that Burdick and Lederer’s Ugly American is a worse caricature than ever.
These Olympics, for me, abound with reminders that Americans remain dangerously ignorant about the rest of the world. Insulated and pampered, we love to hate George Bush as the man who did this to us. But regime rotation is no cure if hated US policies continue, a safe bet given the current vapid discourse on any issue of world import. Spare me the hate mail about how I’m being too negative, or that I can’t hope to convince people by telling them they’re stupid. A canary in a coal mine doesn’t sing any sweet songs to wake people up; it just up and dies.
© 2004 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted with credit and link to
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Welch lives and writes in Salem,
Massachusetts, USA, with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde.
Together they run The
Greenhouse School. Past articles are available online:
index on request. He has appeared on radio [interview
available here] and his columns have been aired as well:
those interested in rebroadcasting the audio may contact the
author. Some columns are available in Spanish or French, and
other translations are pending (translation help for more
languages welcome). Welch speaks several languages and is
available for recordings in French, German, Russian and
Spanish, or, telephone interviews in the target language. See