I Want a Name: Olympic Perfection and Nationalist Pride

“Why would I know the name of the jackass that supplied a 30 kopeck insulator to do a 50 kopeck job?” This is what came to mind as I watched the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics and the final snowflake refused to undergo its transformation. The quote comes from the film K-19: The Widow Maker. It appears in the first part of the movie when Liam Neeson is asked to provide the names of those responsible for his submarine’s electronic failures during a drill and is filled with all the implications of the pitfalls of the Soviet system.

I found myself a bit nostalgic as the pageantry continued; no doubt brought on as a consequence of the games being hosted in Russia and my being a child of the Cold War. As the unfinished Olympic ring quintet floated by, I am sure that there were many like me who instinctively felt someone was going to be sent to Siberia over it. I’m not so sure that my children fully appreciated my comments to that effect. Lost on them was the drama and anticipation regarding which athlete would defect to the West next. The somber presence of steroidal East Germans and stoic Soviets in red warm-up suits with the ever present CCCP stamped on them has been replaced by colors, lights, and fanfare.

I realize that any ten-minute review of a nation’s thousand-year history is bound to be reductionist. But the white-washing of the Red Period was palpable. A short clip from Doctor Zhivago would have served the truth better. The Olympics are no longer about West versus East, Democracy versus Communism, freedom versus state slavery. But they are still about extraordinary personal achievement and nationalist pride, albeit sandwiched between super-sized Broadway productions.

Our proclivity to project on our athletes never ceases to amaze me. The human condition hasn’t changed much in the nearly three thousand years since the Greeks first began celebrating their Olympiads. The city-states would certainly celebrate their heroes, but pride of place trumped individual achievement then as it does now. It seems somewhat surprising that a culture that prized excellence in all things centered its penultimate expression on physical prowess. Amid Homer’s poetry, Plato’s perfect forms, Salanion’s sculptures, and Sophocles’s stage stood the Olympians crowned in their laurel leaves: humankind’s epitome of excellence and representatives of the superior city-state.

And thus we sat, Americans pitted against Soviets, somehow sure that gold meant our system was better, our cause more noble, our people more skilled. If it happened that it was the sickle and hammer that flew high at the end of the contest and not the stars and bars, it was only because they didn’t play by the rules. Their athletes were state sponsored, professionals under another name. We could all acknowledge in the games that it was a contest of ideologies played out on the stage of athletic achievement. And for a time, the world would pretend that we weren’t actually firing live ammunition at each other through proxies in jungles far from home.

What enemy are we being distracted from now? I remember thinking that we were on the verge of WWIII when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. We nobly entered the fray, introducing our shadow warriors to train the freedom fighters bravely defending their homeland from the Communist threat. Did anyone notice when the mujahideen turned into the Taliban? Did anyone realize that they were committed to their cause (mujahideen comes from the Arabic mujāhidūn, “those who engage in jihad”[1]) and not ours?

While the nations compete, the Russians close rank with a security ring of nearly sixty thousand personnel. Gone is the simple fear of a Munich-style assault by a want-to-be rogue state. Whether we call them Georgians, Chechens, or Saudi Arabians, the real enemy is jihad.

But don’t worry. I doubt you will hear any updates on the Russian’s anti-jihad security measures. Neither will there be breaking news in the middle of the competition regarding America’s progress in the War on Jihad. Such straightforward speech does not belong in the political PR arena. The religious implications of anybody’s crusade cannot be openly acknowledged. Let us call it terrorism and remove its face and cause. And let us all relax as we enjoy our bread and games.

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