Keep your eye on the ball

Focus is a big part of success in any sport.  Lose it for an instance and a season of hard work can be squandered in a second.  Chris Webber’s infamous timeout in the 1993 NCAA Championship Game.  Jean Van de Velde’s inexplicable decision to go driver on the 18th at Carnoustie.  Pretty much any time Manny Ramirez plays the outfield.

Yes, as we head into the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, set to begin in less than a week, it’s a sure bet that those athletes best able to keep their concentration and composure in the face of enormous pressure, extreme physical adversity, and countless distractions will be the ones we see on the medal stand.

I just wish the journalists who cover them would take the same advice. 

The some 20,000 members of the media expected to cover the Games descended in hordes upon the city this week, and many were less than entralled by what they found.  Despite repeated assurances from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that this Olympics would bring a more open China, Internet access in the Olympic Village was subject to the same censorship citizens there are accustomed to.  Restricted sites included those discussing Taiwan, Tibet, Falun Gong – in other words, anything the ruling Communist Party deemed a threat to its authoritarian grasp on power. 

International outrage ensued, as aggrieved journalists from around the globe complained they were hamstrung in their ability to report the news.  Chinese officials have since made concessions – for instance, by removing Amnesty International and the Chinese language version of the BBC from the banned list.

My question only is: What the heck does Taiwanese seperatism or Tibetian independence have to do with a sporting event?  What could the website of Radio Free Asia conceivably contribute to our understanding of swimming or gymastics?  And why is it necessary to discuss the plight of the peasant farmer when there’s badmition, archery, and ping pong to be commented on?

Now, the human rights abuses perpetrated as a matter of course by the Chinese regime are certainly nothing to sneeze at.   But the Olympics are an athletic competition, not a forum for political protest.  It’s our chance, once every four years, to put the back page on the front page – to push politics into the background and just experience the sheer joy of seeing who among us are the fastest, the strongest, the most acrobatic, the best coordinated, the most agile.  I’ll have my sports without a side of international relations, thank you very much.

True, the Olympics have always been about more than sport.  Its grand ambition was encapsulated in the guiding mission put forth by Pierre de Coubertin, the movement’s founder, in 1894:

Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create away of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

Therein lies the true beauty of the Games: though the lessons and the inspiration they provide transcend sport, the consequences of victory and defeat are confined to the field of play.  The Games are more than just a game, not in spite of their lack of political consequences, but because of it.


That politics enters the equation is somewhat unavoidable – after all, it’s not often people from over 150 nations gather in one place for a single purpose.  But when it does, the results are almost always ugly: Hilter in Berlin (1932), the tragedy in Munich (1972), the dueling Cold War boycotts in Moscow (1980) and LA (1984).  In that respect, the Olympics are much like a holiday gathering with extended family: everyone’s excited to see each other until Uncle Jack brings up politics at the dinner table, making the rest of the meal uncomfortable at best and downright antagonistic at worst.

 So here’s my plea to journalists covering the Games: Please, forget politics for a week.  If it troubles your conscience, take comfort in the fact that no investigative piece written during a 19-day athletic competition, no matter how profound, is likely to undo decades of political repression.  Do your readers and yourself a favor and focus on sports.  It will make our experience of the Games more informative and more enjoyable.  And, with your eyes squarely on the ball, it may well spare you the indignity of an untimely strikeout.

2 responses to “Keep your eye on the ball

  1. polisciafterparty

    Well done. I think you’ve raised the standard for well-written posts on this blog. Consider all of my subsequent posts to be efforts working towards this type of entry. Of course, most of my posts are just links to well-written articles, so I have an easier time posting mediocre entries.

    – Legal Eagle

  2. polisciafterparty

    Thanks, it took a little time to put together.

    You are a far more prolific poster than I (which is appreciated for cube-dwellers in search of amusement).


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