Why the Olympics are Making Me Sad

The Olympics is one of my favorite things in the world, but I’m struggling to enjoy this one.  It seems to be under a bad star.  Enjoying the Olympics is always a matter of the athletes and their performances overpowering the obnoxious Olympic bureaucracy, NBC’s ridiculous coverage, and the looming specter of nationalist jingoism.  This year it feels like the forces of evil are winning.

I admit that my getting off on the wrong foot with the London Olympics was a matter of taste.  I really didn’t like the Opening Ceremonies.   Humorlessness has always been a problem of mine.  I recently found a bundle of letters my mother wrote to my grandmother in the early 80s, when I was about 4, and already she is talking about my over-serious disposition.  Over the course of my life it has often come up–I remember my art professors in college telling me my paintings were “too elegant” and that the humor in them, which I did try to include, was too subtle.  My friend Logan Beitmen, always a perceptive critic, called them “religious”.

It’s always been my taste–Logan was picking up on my love of Byzantine mosaics and austere Early Renaissance frescoes.  I like Philip Guston’s dreamy abstractions and hate his cartoony KKK guys.  I find most Hollywood comedies unwatchable.  I prefer Aeschylus to Shakespeare!   I’m a bit at a loss how to change this about myself–how do you teach yourself to laugh at things you don’t think are funny?  But I still feel like it’s somehow a failing–pompous and self-important, or something.  In any case, you can probably see why I preferred Athens and Beijing’s Opening Ceremonies to the jitterbugging nurses of London.

But if there’s one thing which has brought me down about these Olympics, it’s the recent badminton match-throwing scandal.  I have a strangely emotional connection with badminton.  In 1992 my family, still in shock over my mother’s death in 1989, lived in Indonesia over the summer while my dad, a scholar of Balinese performing art, did research.  This meant that we never saw a single game of the Dream Team’s, but we did see a lot of badminton: Indonesia won five medals in the sport, including both the men’s and women’s singles gold.  I was transfixed, and I still think badminton is about the most entertaining sport at the Olympics.

Five years later, my senior year in high school, my father was dying across the country in Los Angeles, while my brother and I, possibly illegally, lived alone in Connecticut.  I don’t remember how we lived–what we ate, for example.  Of course in your day-to-day life, no matter what’s going on, you have your ups and downs, pleasures and pains, which can seem trivial in the big scheme of things.  One of my great pleasures, that bleak scary year, was winning the badminton doubles tournament in my gym class with my friend Mikhailo.  I’d known him literally all my life, our families very close.  Despite the fact that he was about my age, he always seemed like a bigger brother: braver, stronger, cannier, a little condescending.  (I grew up thinking I was pretty much a wimp because I didn’t break my arm every summer like Mikhailo did.)  By the time we were in high school I felt sure he’d entirely outgrown me, the shy little nerdy kid, where he ran with a semi-bad crowd and dyed his hair crazy colors and still got into all kinds of trouble.

But he surprised me by being my partner in gym class.  I was terrible at all sports, and he was very patient and encouraging helping me improve at badminton, which he was good at the way he was good at everything phyiscal–self-taught and undisciplined.  (He skiied without poles, I remember, just applying ice-skating ability to skis.)  He was skinny and wiry and had a good long reach, which he used to smash the birdie whenever possible, shouting a slightly self-mocking “BAAHHHHHH!” as he did so.  We turned out to be a pretty good team, with me to make saves when his wild swings missed.  We complemented each other.  I guess I still need someone to fill in the wackiness and craziness that I lack, causing me to not appreciate things like London’s wacky crazy Opening Cermonies.

We won the tournament and the silly championship belts the gym teacher made out of badminton rackets.  It was about the last interaction with Mikhailo I had.  The next semester we didn’t have gym, and I missed a lot of school because my dad died, just before I turned 18.  I dyed my hair pink, myself, for the prom; when Mikhailo signed my yearbook he wrote, “Nice hair!  Thanks for copying ya dork!”  Two years later he was also dead.  It was some kind of mysterious blessing, that we had those couple weeks of being a team together, giving me that last memory of that boy I loved.

As I only see badminton during the Olympics, and as badminton is so tied up in memories of lost friend and lost family, I really count on it to be wonderful.  In Beijing, it was; I watched (online of course) the unheralded Maria Kristin Yulianti win bronze for Indonesia with good humor and grace, among many other great matches.  This year’s spectacle of people trying their worst in order to get better position in the tournament, some argue, is perfectly fair and in keeping with the principles of smart play and strategic thinking.  But that’s not what I’m watching for.  And for me it’s been a real letdown.  I’ve watched some good Olympics–I really enjoyed the table tennis match between Ding Ning and Feng Tianwei yesterday, and the amazing volleyball player Kim Yeon-Koung.  I’m very happy along with my Venezuelan sister-in-law to see Ruben Limardo win gold.   And there’s plenty more to come.  Good may triumph over evil.  We’ll see.


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