Who gets to define the Olympics?

I watched a lot of Olympics coverage over the last two weeks.  A lot.  New high-def screen, new high-def cable, spring break… what’s not to like?  The whole time I was looking for something to blog about, but nothing really caught my eye.  It wasn’t until the very end that I saw something really interesting happen (and no, it wasn’t the gold medal goal… but that was pretty sweet).  What I saw was an attempt to tell us what the games were about.

From the National Post to The Globe and Mail to Brian Williams (the Canadian one, not the American--this video explains) (and I’m sure Bob Costas too, but I didn’t get to see that, and he’s not Canadian anyway), everyone capped the whole event off with a summary of what had just happened.  It makes sense.  Our media producers—whether in news, entertainment or news-entertainment—tell stories. 

And in North America, we like our stories neat and tidy.  Everything works together, and nothing gets wasted.  When the hero of the thriller puts his keys on the corner of the kitchen table five minutes in, we know that with five minutes left, those same keys will end up alerting Diane that the killer is waiting in the next room with a rubber mallet.  People don’t just put keys down in North American storytelling.  Neither do Games just happen.  They have a character (all good stories do), they have a purpose (can’t have a narrative without one), and they have a trajectory (it’s messy and disconnected otherwise).

So, these Olympic Games, what were they?  They were the story of Canada, a humble, plucky nation often underappreciated and incorrectly stereotyped.  The story of a monumental gathering of the world that may have started with a few stumbles, but persevered, corrected course, and gathered momentum.  Where we started in tragedy (Georgian luger), we ended with triumph (Joannie Rochette).  Where we started with failure (expected medals not materializing), we ended with overwhelming success (more golds than ever before! Plus, the only one that really mattered!).  Where we started with unintentional comedy (the cauldron arm not extending) we ended with really Canadian humour (mocking the cauldron arm, and that ridiculous, over-the-top Buble number replete with giant inflatable beavers).  Yes, Canada, stand tall, take a bow, you gotta gold!

The thing I always wonder with these narratives is whether the people telling them ever realize how incredibly incomplete they are.  I know that sense of closure is nice, but seriously: this was a huge event, involving billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of individual stories.  It took years to prepare, and weeks to execute (and the Paralympics are still coming).  You simply cannot boil that down to a little editorial, even if you are the super-suave Brian Williams.  Life doesn’t always make sense, and even when it does, it’s tremendously complex and doesn’t obey the laws of Hollywood fiction.

So inevitably, things get left out.  Storylines simply don’t make it into the summary because, well, they’re messy, they complicate things, they’re not very much fun—whatever might be the reason.  While protests were the story before the sports started (the assembled media had to have something to justify their presence), they disappeared once the competition started.  Except, of course, for the bit about vandalism by protesters.  The only mention I saw of them in the closing storytelling was to belittle them (the National Post).

That ability to define what happened and—by the power of omission—what didn’t matter is tremendously powerful.  It’s the ability to say, “your story is valid” and “yours isn’t.”  And who usually gets left out?  Well, it’s not typically the attractive, the famous, the rich and the powerful.  Other people might make it in if their stories aren’t too discordant.  If they are out of tune with the final narrative—like the protestors—they’re ignored or criticized. 

I believe there were social problems caused or exacerbated by these Games.  My guess is people are right to argue that the event put pressure on the homeless and the nearly homeless by encouraging developers to upscale their holdings.  It’s not a simple issue and I don’t pretend to know enough about it to pass judgment, but the fact is, it didn’t make it into the final, sanctioned story.  Or let’s get a little less political.  There are a lot of Canadians who really aren’t interested in sports (gasp!).  I know people who weren’t glued to their screens for two weeks (like I was).  In fact, 20% of Canadians didn’t watch any of the gold medal hockey game!  Is the triumphant Canadian Olympic narrative theirs too?

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think the news media are lying about the Games!  I don’t even think they’re misrepresenting them.  There were lots of cool things happening, and I thrilled to the same stories that they did.  Clearly there’s something to what these commentators, editorialists, and writers are saying. But the point is, it’s only part of the picture.  And if it’s a nice story that neatly summarizes something as big and complex as the Olympics?  You need to realize you’re being sold a worldview.

Last updated Mar. 2nd, 2010 at 9:25am by Kevin Schut