Olympic Cliches

Aug. 30 - This Olympiad has been a revelation for me. It's the first time in my life I've watched the Olympics while in a foreign country—but "in a foreign country" doesn't quite do justice to the ambiguous sphere of existence I occupy here. I'm not just a visitor, but a legal resident. A taxpayer. The husband of one Danish citizen and now the father of another. I'm not becoming Danish, but Danishness is growing all over me, like ivy or algae or chicken pox.

Even in the United States I was never especially enthusiastic about the Olympics. I vaguely remember watching bits of the '72 games with my cousins in Seattle, and I have ambiguous memories of many subsequent Olympiads—Bruce Jenner, Nadia Comaneci, the '80 American hockey team, Kerri Strug. The images bleed together and I'm always getting the years mixed up (I originally wrote "the '84 hockey team" before Googling myself straight).

I probably would have been a bigger Olympic fan if the events had been scheduled more to my liking, or if I'd ever been clever enough to identify which events I wanted to see in advance and when they'd be on. Even then, I think the real obstacle to my appreciation has been my nationality. I've always been one to root for the underdog, and America doesn't field many underdogs. On those occassions when I happen to be watching and there happens to be an American underdog in contention for a medal, I'm wild about the Olympics. The rest of the time they're not much different from weather reports: they give you something to make conversation about and a cursory look at the rest of the world.

I've been as ambivalent as ever this summer. Moreso, probably, since the focus of this August has been a leaky bundle of flesh that weighs less than half an Olympic shotput.

But you can never really escape the Olympics. We've been getting about five or six channels of coverage here in Denmark for the past 10 days, with an emphasis on rowing and handball. Once in a while Trine and I would watch a trial heat or qualifying round while tending to Molli. Thursday night we visited some friends to pick up some baby stuff they were lending us: the Danish women's handball team was playing China in the quarterfinals and we ended up sitting around the television watching the game. Friday night we needed some television to keep us awake while we struggled to put Molli to sleep, and there was the Danish women's handball team playing Ukraine in the semi-finals. At a navngivningsfest we attended Saturday afternoon, handball came up repeatedly as a topic of conversation.

"The final's tomorrow at ten," someone told me.

"We'll have to watch that," I said. "It's exciting, I'm enjoying it."

"They won in 2000," my interlocutor reminded me. "But Korea's really good. We ought to get the silver."

On our walk home I told Trine I was looking forward to the final. "We'll have to watch it," I said, "if we're awake tomorrow night at ten."

But when discussing scheduled times, Danes use the twenty-four hour clock. Ten in the evening would be klokken to og tyve, or "twenty-two o'clock." So if Trine had been paying attention to me, we certainly would have missed the finals.

Fortunately that's rarely a problem. At ten o'clock Sunday morning she had herself camped out in front of the television and invited me to join her.

So we didn't miss the finals after all, and I'm very glad we didn't. It was one of the most exciting sports events I'd ever seen. It lived up to every cliche I'd ever heard about the Olympics: a higher level of competition, athletes giving their all, the edifying spectacle of human bodies exerting themselves with a gallant and almost anachronistic kind of purity—all that crap. In the end Denmark won, and we jumped and whooped and clapped and damn near wept.

In a country of five million, Olympic gold is a special treat—even in the events you "usually" do well in. Imagine if America's entire Olympic team had to be drawn from the state of Wisconsin. That's what Denmark's dealing with. (For an interesting analysis of medals per country allocated on a per capita basis, see here. In this analysis, Denmark ranks considerably above the United States—but we still beat China. And Canada.)

When I described the excitement of the handball victory to my sister, she asked if Denmark had been asked to hand their gold medal over to Korea because of a judging error. I was horrified. I thought something terrible had happened. She quickly sensed my confusion and explained she'd been joking. She told me about the whole sordid Paul Hamm controversy.

Then she truly saddened me: she told me how the fans had been booing some of the American athletes competing after the Hamm escapade. It reminded me how shallow and foolish and awful people could be, even good and big-hearted people gathered to appreciate the edifying spectacle of all those fine-sounding Olympic cliches.

It also reminded me how different the Olympics are from an American perspective, how they're always so much more than "mere" sport to us. I remember how important it used to be to win more medals than the Soviets, and I reflected on the hoopla surrounding first the President's and then the Secretary of State's ultimately aborted plans to visit these games.

The Queen of Denmark was in the stands for most of the Danish women's handball games, along with her son and daughter-in-law. Despite the presence of Danish troops in Iraq, no protests were staged to protest Margethe's presence. Frederick and Mary weren't being burned in effigy outside the stadium. No one really seemed to give a damn. Which is exactly what all those cliches about the Olympics are supposed to mean: the audience doesn't matter. The athletes do.

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[I have no idea why team handball isn't more popular in America. It's fast, physical, and involves the scoring of lots of points (as opposed to soccer, in which sport whole leagues struggle through a season to accumulate, in aggregate, fewer points than are scored in a single NFL game). It's easier to understand than rugby and offers adequate opportunities for commercial interruptions. It's a fine sport. See for yourself.]

* * *

The navngivningsfest ("name giving party") we attended on Saturday was the second in two weeks. The baby of honor at this part was just nine days older than Molli, but he'd been born around his actual due date. He looked like a giant to Trine and me. He looked as though if we let him get too close to Molli he'd eat her, or crush her from sheer gravitational force.

We're looking forward to the day when people don't look at Molli and coo right away, "She's so small!" ("Hvor er hun lille!") On the other hand, every time we see someone else's newborn we jump right into our "Holy Christ, your child's a titan!" routine, so I ought to cut people some slack.

I'm really bad at cutting people some slack.

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2034 years ago today, Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra clutched a snake to her breast and died. History has judged this a suicide, but there's room for doubt. She had previously clutched Julius Caesar and Marc Antony to her breast without dying, so she may have considered herself immunized.

It's Independence Day in Azerbaijan, St. Rose of Lima Day in Peru, and Victory Day in Turkey.

It's the birthday of Cameron Diaz (1972), Robert Parrish (1953), Frank "Tug" McGraw (1944), Ted Williams (1918), Fred MacMurray (1908), Mary Shelley (1797), and Huey Long (1893).

Happy Monday!

© 2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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