Commentary

Seismic rings around the Olympics

We all are touched by the juxtaposition of the Games and the Chilean earthquake

Originally Published: March 1, 2010
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Olympic WrapupESPN.com IllustrationThe Winter Olympics were touched by triumph, tragedy and the disastrous earthquake in Chile.

Human frailty and grace this week, hockey and ballyhoo, high ideals and low expectations, straight teeth and round figures and all things everywhere glorious and horrible.

This was meant to be your usual Winter Olympics wrap, another disappointing quadrennial 1000-word thingamajig with all the usual hacky observations about the host country and What We've Learned About Ourselves. In this case, I'd have spotlighted back bacon and polite self-effacement, bad-flannel poets and giant inflatable beavers, and made note of 100 other easy punch lines that say nothing about anything to anyone. Then maybe we'd close with some sort of cheap nod to human achievement, a sentence or two in which the sentimentality congeals on the page like a grease stain, then hustle quickly on to a reminder that our next hollow cultural signifier, the Oscars, is less than a week away.

[+] EnlargeOlympic Beaver
AP Photo/Jae C. HongWhat does the inflatable beaver at the closing ceremonies teach us about ourselves?

Until last Saturday, I'd have been happy to do it.

I'd have itemized the giant General Electric ad buy and the Curse of Vancouver and the medal count, iPods on the halfpipe and crazy Plushenko, hockey celebrations and who "owns the podium," tape delays and furry Johnny Weir, the four-man bob and the former Flying Tomato, the alpine "catfight," short-track mayhem, and brothers and sisters in bugle beads and sequins ice dancing justthisclose to theme and variations from -- I'm not kidding -- "Schindler's List."

I'd have inquired of Bode Miller's moment: Is this really redemption, or just evidence of the gifts you pissed away?

And I'd have been happy to do it.

But then the ground fell away beneath us all, and smart-ass seemed insufficient.

Granted, it's been interesting and a little heartbreaking to watch the escalation and acceleration of marketing and narrative-bending in these antic OlympiCapitalist times. The irresistibility of our salesmanship is a terrifying thing to behold. Let no waking moment pass without advertising! Let no human consciousness remain unruined by a jingle or a slogan or a brand strategy! Let Morgan Freeman's voice be the last thing ever heard on Earth!

The arrival onstage of Shaun White, for example, or Lindsey Vonn or Apolo Anton Ohno as prefabricated spokescelebrities, fully formed and dragging a product line behind them, makes the point. Exhausted by them before the torch ever entered the stadium, before even a skate was laced or a puck dropped or an edge set, we were being sold the idea of being sold to. And it's been that way for quite a long time.

I intend no disrespect to these folks; they're all medal winners, after all, and reasonable representatives of their home country. But their stories come to us as slick and frictionless and vacuous as anything you can find on television. This is not their fault, of course, but the fault of commercial TV and the fault of my colleagues in the zombie commentariat and the fault of the corporate sponsors and the fault of an audience who asks nothing better or more complicated of its heroes than they be camera-ready at all times. Higher, faster, stronger, sure, OK, but it helps to have great hair, great teeth and great catsuit abs.

The difference between these predigested, prepackaged fairy tales and the messy conduct of actual living becomes evident when something human happens. Joannie Rochette's brave skate, for example, in the aftermath of her mother's sudden fatal heart attack; or the sobering death of luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili. Life intrudes on life. Life is chaotic and dark and often frightening, but it is a rare Olympic story indeed that escapes the editorial control of the Up-With-People copywriters and the global barkers of happy sap.

[+] EnlargeDavid Kumaritashvili
AP Photo/Shakh AivazovAcross the world in Bakuriani, Georgia, David Kumaritashvili grieved the death of his son in Vancouver.

Thus it was illuminating to see all that phony Week 1 buildup to The Most Important Hockey Tournament Ever Played Anywhere By Anyone -- Except For That Other One That One Time In Lake Placid -- become authentic excitement in Week 2. I've never quite figured out how America 30 years later still repackages itself as the "underdog" come game time. With nearly 10 times Canada's population as its talent pool, and a hockey history nearly as long and as rich, the real miracle is how the U.S. manages to continually reinvent itself as the plucky, undergunned outlier in world hockey.

And to answer the inevitable next question, no, that gold-medal game won't help the NHL. What will help the NHL is to drop 14 deadweight franchises and reorganize itself along the lines of a slightly enlarged Original Six. Eight teams in Canada and eight teams in the U.S. A sustainable economy of scale. Sorry.

Which leads me to the billion or so dollars that Vancouver might lose for having hosted this whole mishegas, and the quarter billion it might have lost NBC. After which you're left to wonder who runs a business this way, and why they haven't been jailed or wrapped in a wet sheet and carried off on a gurney.

The modern Olympic movement was meant to bring us together; was founded on the ideal that through athletic competition we can set aside, however briefly, our differences, and rediscover what it is that all peoples share in common.

Late Saturday, maybe 16 hours after that initial tremor off the coast of Chile, a small, fast wave brushed the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and was another example of one thing all peoples share in common. Our terrible fragility.

[+] EnlargeChile Quake
MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty ImagesThis open casket in Talcahuano, Chile, should remind us of our frailty as we celebrate the strength and spirit of the Olympics.

With a death toll likely to climb at least as high as the number of athletes who played in those Winter Games, that Saturday earthquake was a terrifying reminder that it is at once our glory and our horror to be human.

Watch the computer models the next few weeks and you'll see those seismic rings spreading red and blue and green across the map, black and yellow, the rings interlocking and the shock waves spreading, expanding, then folding back against themselves.

On and on they go, tidal waves radiant in the great tub of the Pacific, bouncing and reverberating, then the Atlantic, now the Indian, north and south and east and west, echoes ringing the planet until something sounds in every one of us. Something deep and inextinguishable.

Until at last everything everywhere touches us all.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

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