GOING FOR GOLD
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The Olympics have turned out to be the perfect antidote to the toxic pop culture in which we live today.
In a world dominated by vapid, undertalented and underdressed blondes like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Simpson, there is nothing like American beach volleyballers Misty May and Kerri Walsh to wash the bad taste out of your mouth. Finally, here are women in bikinis demonstrating speed, strength, tactical sharpness, teamwork, respect and friendship instead of ersatz sex and a love of rap stars and cheap beer.
And how about the U.S. women's softball team?
Glued to my set, I loved watching the swimmers flash so quickly through the water, and seeing the gymnasts twisting and turning in the air in ways I never dreamt were possible. Synchronized diving? Men who jump 17 feet in the air with the help of poles? Who knew?
Of course, synchronized swimming still gives me the creeps - maybe it's those forced smiles, or those disembodied feet waving in the air, or the hidden message about the joys of conformity. But that is the only event I haven't thoroughly enjoyed.
Monday night's male gymnastics event made the hair on my arms stand on end. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Alexei Nemov of Russia flew on the high bar - literally flew. Tempting fate, he thrilled the audience with six release moves (for those of you who aren't watching, that's when they let go of the bar after building up some momentum and then catch it again). But instead of just letting go and catching, he did somersaults and twists. He danced in the air. Most newspaper reports used the word "daring" to describe this literally breath-taking performance.
Then the judges (who are in competition, my husband says, with the winter Olympics figure skating judges for the gold medal in incompetence), gave him an inexplicably low score. That's when the outraged audience started booing. Bless them, they just wouldn't stop. They stood as one, pointing their thumbs down as if to condemn the judges to death by lions. And they kept up their displeasure until the judges were forced to re-evaluate the score.
The judges raised the number, but not enough to give Nemov a medal. The crowd would have continued booing, and maybe even attacked the judges, if Nemov hadn't stepped in. Obviously moved, he had the grace to thank them and beg them, in the name of sportsmanship, to quiet down so the competition could continue. The stiff American, Paul Hamm, went next. He did no flying through the air and won the silver medal. The Italian, Igor Cassina, flew and won the gold. Nemov won nothing but the love of everyone who was lucky enough to watch his performance.
Like most Americans, I was delighted to see the Iraqi soccer team back at the Olympics, although things are so bad in their country right now that they have to play their home games in Jordan. They lost their shot at the gold medal Tuesday to Paraguay, but they still have chance at the bronze. And at least when they return home this time, Uday Hussein won't torture them for not coming out on top.
But President George W. Bush's exploitation of the Iraqi team in his political ads has backfired. In a piece written by Grant Wahl on Sports Illustrated's on-line site (sportsillustrated.com), the Iraqi players bravely attacked the American invasion. "We don't wish for the presence of Americans in our county," said star player Salih Sadir of Najaf. "We want them to go away."
And midfielder Ahmen Manajid of Fallujah said something I've often thought myself: "How will (President Bush) meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women? He has committed so many crimes."
When you're watching the Olympics on network television, problems, of course, exist. The biggest barrier to enjoyment is the faux-naive Bob Costas, who seems to pop up whenever there's an important sporting event. So far this year, he's blighted golf, horse racing, boxing and this. Along with Tom Brokaw, Scott Simon of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday, and Katie Couric, he gives sanctimony a bad name.
Not even Costas, however, can mar the most important part of the Olympics for me - the chance to experience real achievement and real emotion, not the focus-group-tested sleaze and image-making that usually fouls our television screens.
Seeing honest pride and honest joy moves me the most. I saw buckets of it on opening day, in the faces of the young athletes who marched with wide eyes and their national flags around the stadium. Now I see it at every award ceremony. The male athletes pretend to be stoic as their national anthem begins, but by the time the music is halfway played, they are choking back tears and mouthing the words. The women, of course, weep openly. May and Walsh held hands.
The Olympics show us, as comedian Bob Harris posted from Athens on the Tom Tomorrow Web site (thismodernworld.com), that "Just for a moment there, it felt like all of humanity had a good and decent soul. We need more moments like that."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.