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COLUMN: What do the Olympics mean to the world?

By Briana Bowen
On February 17, 2014

Every four years, the world sets its eyes on a city festooned with flags of every nationality, tattooed with the symbolic interlocking rings and temporarily populated with some of the most exceptional humans on the globe. Between the offset cycles of the Winter and Summer Olympics, the world gets to witness this remarkable two-week international gathering every even-numbered year.

But look past the colorful flags and the medal count for a moment. What does the event we know as the Olympics really mean to the world? Are the Olympics a temporary utopia of global peace, love and friendly competition, or are they a passive-aggressive way for nations to let their “champions” duke it out with one another? Let’s look at the Olympics through three different lenses: genuine idealism, pessimistic cynicism and realistic pragmatism.

Seen in the most idealistic light, the Olympics is the consummate forum of international goodwill and brotherhood, where petty national differences are transcended in a shared celebration of the men and women of every race and creed who have shattered the erstwhile limits of human capacity. Petty politics and partisan disputes melt before the Olympic flame of unity and fraternity. Through an idealistic lens, this celebration of the resilience of the human spirit and body allows the world — even if for just two weeks — to overcome division and conflict and live as one human race bound by the same genetics and awed by the same feats of physical greatness.

Employing the cynical lens gives us a very different story. The Olympics, from that perspective, is nothing more than a passive-aggressive way for nations to further their own interests. Through the use of national symbols and loaded rhetoric — and, of course, the stellar performance of their many athletes — larger and richer nations like China, Russia and the U.S. can assert their dominance on the global stage while smaller countries are poorly represented and marginalized in Olympic competition. Cynics would characterize the Olympics as a colorful facade of unity that thinly veils the constant struggle among nations for power.

Here’s my take: The warm fuzzies inspired by a purely idealistic view of the Olympics are a touch naive, but the biting analysis provided by a cynical lens is needlessly pessimistic. In the case of the Olympics, as with most political issues, I prefer to look at the world through the third lens: realistic pragmatism. This lens of pragmatism acknowledges the practical reality of the world as it is, finding a balance between the idealism and cynicism.

Seen through a pragmatic lens, the Olympics are an international forum where the world gathers as a family — and, like every family gathering, that event is far from perfect. Tensions between nations and political overtones are present; friendly and not-so-friendly rivalries are played out on the ski hill and the ice rink. But the Olympics also provide an opportunity for people of every background to join together and realize the things which can bring us together as a human family are greater than the things that divide us.

No, the Olympics aren’t a utopian escape from the reality of the world’s problems. But they do give the world a chance to be reminded of the remarkable things that can happen when we humans develop our better qualities: determination, courage, excellence, fairness and friendship.

– Briana is a political science major in her last semester at USU. She is an avid road cyclist and a 2013 Truman Scholar. Proudest accomplishment: True Aggie. Reach Briana at b.bowen@aggiemail.usu.edu.

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