The Olympics is an opera that runs on one orchestrated symbol after another, and this Tokyo Olympics is a superabundant tragedy.
From the earliest edges of each person’s living memory, we can pull out moments where ‘our’ person won against all the odds, and for deep inchoate limbic reasons it means we collectively shone a little brighter, dreamed a little grander, affirm that we belonged to our country a little more than we did before seeing what we saw.
That’s still there, in the same way a dim star still pulses its flicker for us in the early morning sky.
For a tiny country such as ourselves, our gold medal successes are rare and feature in our collective being as a kind of national surprise that we are more capable and competent than we expected. The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, for example, in which Ian Ferguson and Paul McDonald won multiple golds between them, became an important bookend of a long social crisis and economic depression in New Zealand. From the stasis of Muldoonism into the chaos and change and social revolution of the Lange Government, the 1984 Olympics were by a long gumboot throw our most successful Olympics.
Each little specialisation gets us cheering for the weirdest stuff like we knew it all along as a cosmic inevitability of our collective greatness. Like the gold in the individual mixed horse eventing. I mean WTF. But it was a gold and the horse’s name was Charisma, so in your eye cynics.
People work their lives to the bone over years to achieve such a moment.
Some such moments can still ring through history as a little shining bell of idealism.
But it’s getting harder. Since 1984, the number of events held at the Summer Olympics has increased by 50%, the number of athletes and countries participating has nearly doubled, and the number of people needing to operate the games has tripled. The London Olympics, where more than 10,000 athletes competed, required a support staff of 350,000 people.
The London Olympics were also intentionally organised to develop East London, and it has as planned left a massive legacy of regeneration in its wake.
Because the Queen and James Bond are English confections of one fiction over another, the global public got to understand them as simply a core of Englishness when rolled down the red carpet simultaneously.
Who knows what triumph of the patriotic imagination will explode in Brisbane as it plans to revive itself in 2032.
The Olympics are events that accelerate not only athletes and teams, but also whole cities and countries together.
The Beijing Olympics will certainly be remembered as an expression of collective will, as massed calisthenics are intended …
Somewhere the whole thing has started to slide away, however, with not all hosts capable of generating this collective event also able to promote the core ideals of the Olympics of promoting world peace and basic human rights through sport. It would be difficult to make the argument that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was a good site to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 in Sochi. The 2022 winter games in Beijing and the Hebei Province will be held within the increasingly repressive regime of Xi Jinping. The alternative in that bidding was Kasakhstan, no shining torch of woke joy itself.
Perhaps, like the America’s Cup, the summer Olympics will finally eat itself like a kind of Akira moment …
and get supplanted by the stripped back version in Sail GP.
Perhaps each of the sports needs to just go on the road and be a permanent circuit like a jacked-up Diamond League. Forget the one-city-one-time approach.
But the Brisbane win is about as perfect a global signal of reward that Australia is one of the richest and most successful nations on earth and one of a handful who has managed the 2020-2021 pandemic very well. Some, like the Athens games, don’t age quite so well, shall we say.
But for this pandemic year of death and mayhem, for each participant nation these Tokyo Olympics are unlikely to be read as tragedy. Or farce. Or comedy.
They will remain their greatest moment.
Even if nation-states that held modern Olympics fall finally like ancient Ur …
and this current century is the apogee of human development after which thermodynamic decline really kicks in,
even if future archaeologists will try to figure out the use of Mark Todd’s top hat in New Zealand culture like it had a function in Gobekle Tepe …
the Olympics is the thing we get to project all kinds of human hope and common development upon like the greatest screen of our projected imagination we’ve ever invented. Which, if it hadn’t been invented already, it would need to be.