The fact that this year's Olympic games are held in China should not detract from the athletes on display and their many accomplishments, but if you have even an iota of a social conscience, the 2008 games may rub you the wrong way from their onset. Personally, it's distracting for me to see a country with a long history of human rights abuses become the center of the sporting world and the focus of endless coverage on the NBC family of networks. China's most recent support for the Sudanese government's atrocities in the Darfur region are only the latest chapter in the how-to book the country has written on alienating the international community and disregarding the rights of human beings (Tiananmen Square anyone?). I never thought that Beijing should be given the games in the first place, but when you add rampant pollution and intense levels of secrecy to their less than stellar history of violence and oppression, I think that it becomes obvious that this year's games are not only about sport and athletic competition, but also about the world's uneasy realization that China is on the rise both economically and politically.
The most recent issue of Adbusters explores the rise of China in the global socio-economic structure in great detail, examining a country that is setting itself up to usurp the United States as the world's true superpower. Whether or not the Chinese will succeed in their aims to dominate the global conversation on a variety of topics is still up for debate, with their pollution and food resource problems limiting the impact of an economy that refuses to slow down. The aforementioned Adbusters helps point out the many problems that the Chinese government has helped create in its struggle for global supremacy and points to a country that is trying to create a figurative wall around itself to stand alongside the Great one made of stone and mortar. Just because cyclists are now free to win medals on a ride atop the wall that used to insulate the country from its enemies does not take away from the fact that the Chinese government is an oppressive regime that is redefining what autonomy means. These factors have turned China into an an unnerving backdrop for the Olympics, where world leaders gathered in the games' first few days to see the up and comer that could threaten their old-world ideas about who's on top globally. I don't like to use Adbusters as source material for my opinions as it has a tendency to exaggerate and infuriate when it could educate and enlighten, but hearing some of the world's leading intellectuals' thoughts on China re-aligned my view of the Olympic games and the country as a whole. A book on China's rise is on my reading list for the summer and until I know more I'll stop preaching and move on to what the Olympics are really all about: athletic competition.
Any conversation about this year's games must start with Michael Phelps, who set the Olympic record for medals in one games with an incredible 8. The fact that Phelps won 8 medals is in itself an amazing accomplishment, but the amount of drama in some of the finishes and the world-record breaking pace at which he won several races made him the dominant story without question. Phelps is a specimen of a human being and the world may never see a single athlete dominate an Olympic games like he did in Beijing this year. This guy's a once-in-a-generation type of talent in the pool and deserves all praises for his golden summer at this year's games. Where I start to get uneasy is when people start talking about him as the greatest athlete in the world. While 8 gold medals and a dominant performance at the biggest stage in sport will get you into the conversation about the world's greatest athlete, I can't believe the amount of chatter I've heard that he is hands down the owner of that title. Maybe I'm just too Americanized for this debate, but I could never call a swimmer the world's greatest athlete, the same way I could never give Tiger Woods that title because he is a golfer.
Granted, swimming is more athletic than golf (you can't swim and smoke a cigar at the same time for example) and though Tiger is probably the world's greatest competitor, Roger Federer has more of a claim to the title than Phelps or Woods combined. He's dominant in his sport and his sport is a physically grueling task. I think that I agree with former U.S. Olympian Bruce Jenner, who claimed to great controversy that Phelps could never be considered the greatest Olympian because all he does is swim. Jenner was saying that the decathlon is the best measure of an athlete, with running, jumping, throwing etc. indicating a more complete and impressive body of work. Phelps, Woods and Federer are the most dominant athletes in their particular sport and I don't take that away from them, but you can't tell me that they're better athletes than Kobe Bryant, Terrell Owens or even this year's gold medal winner in the decathlon, Bryan Clay. Maybe I'm being too hard on Phelps because he's become such a dominant headline in this year's games, but it could also have to do with the fact that he went to Michigan, which can sully even the nicest guy's allure for this writer. Anyways, there are other things from this year's games to be talked about, so I'll borrow a bit from Peter King and do some quick hits on things "I think I think".
- The USA Men's basketball took home the gold this year, living up to their media-created moniker, The Redeem Team. After frankly getting embarrassed in Athens four years ago, the new and improved men's hoopers ran through their preliminary contests with ease on the way to the gold medal game against Spain. The game itself was surprisingly close considering that the teams' first meeting ended in a 30 point victory for the U.S. The gold medal game was a contest with NBA playoff type excitement and while the U.S. won by 11, the final score defied how gritty of a performance the Spanish men put on. It was great to see how honestly excited the entire U.S. team was and the world's greatest player Kobe Bryant proved once again that he is one of the sport's all-time great clutch athletes. Kobe had his hand in 15 consecutive points down a critical stretch in the fourth quarter, either assisting or scoring to help the team seal a victory.
- Usain Bolt's performance on the track was awe-inspiring. It mirrored Phelps' dominance in the pool and his size compared to the other runners just adds to the fact that you can't take your eyes off of him when he's running. He's got a beautiful stride and graceful balance that left everybody else in the dust in the 100 and 200 meters and set world and Olympic records in the process.
- The whole controversy over the age of the female Chinese gymnasts is very disconcerting. I alluded to the Chinese penchant for secrecy at the beginning of this post and for that reason I was not at all surprised when the young athletes were suspected of being a little too young. I mean seriously, gymnasts have a way of hiding their age because of their size and physiques, but those girls looked fresh off of the monkey bars, not the uneven bars. You have to be at least 16 to compete in the events, and it's now coming to light that a couple of the Chinese "women" are only 14. I don't even know if I buy that quite frankly.
- The opening and closing ceremonies at this year's games were simply breathtaking, leaving the planners for the 2012 games in London with a lot to think about. I can't see them topping the amazing level of precision and aesthetic beauty in the Chinese ceremonies, which were nothing short of incredible. A friend of mine told me via text message that she was crying as she watched the opening ceremonies because of their sheer beauty, which pretty much speaks for itself. Maybe you shouldn't have hosted the games in the first place China, but you sure know how to put on a damn good show, so kudos on that at least.
That's it for my Olympic observations, stay tuned for a post about my obsession with college football and the anticipation that is boiling over in my blood to watch this year's Ohio State Buckeyes.