Olympics are a relic of the 20th century

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Based on columnist Cathal Kelly's criterion for Olympic greatness -- not how many medals you collect but what you embody for your times -- I'd call the highlight of week one the performance by Queen Elizabeth and James Bond on opening night. If they returned for week two, I'd watch them in anything: beach volleyball, synchro diving, badminton -- they were peerless.

Take her delivery of Good evening, Mr. Bond. Only four words but not an easy line, there are many wrong ways to go. She said it exactly as a monarch would, acknowledging but not deferring to an underling she's essentially receiving orders from. (Skeptics please note: she wasn't being herself, she was acting.) Then he topped her with a wordless take as she brushed by en route to their helicopter. His expression was minimal yet expressive: discreetly astounded, as if: "Would anyone believe this? I've pulled it off, I've gone and done it."

That could've been Bond the fictional spy, or Daniel Craig, the actor who plays him: "Others have been Bond before me and more will follow but only I will do this." Yet it was also something anyone could identify with: like the look of a single mom, say, who got her kid through school, sitting there at graduation -- "We made it." True, there's always an after, afterward. For Bond it involved getting her on the copter and off, to parachute into the stadium. For Craig the actor, it's the next Bond film, and then the next non-Bond one to prove he isn't stuck. There's always more, but it's right to bask briefly in wonder before carrying on. It was quality work that neither could've done alone. A team medal.

Yet, you say, Bond is such a 20th-century figure. Exactly -- and so's the Olympics. Like what else? Summit meetings for world leaders. Things used to happen at those: deals were made, relationships blew up. What characterizes today's G8s and G20s? The fact that nothing ever happens. That plus exploding security, it's what they and the Olympics are really about. It's probably what medals should be given in. The athletes may be exquisite but the tension comes from whether the terrorists will penetrate. There's also drama over whether the host country is ready. What the locals feel is less national pride than relief.

At least in the 20th century the Games were about something, though it wasn't athletes, it was ideology. In the 1936 Berlin Games, the conflict centred around Nazi racist ideology. By the 1950s, it was the Cold War; medals supposedly reflected the merits of communism versus -- capitalism, democracy, whatever. That was the high Bond era, when U.S. president J.F.K. read the novels in his rocking chair. Now all that sport-inflected ideology is obsolete, though of course the issues aren't. They just don't refract well through the Games.

Nor can the Games be justified for bringing the best competitors together, as they once did. When the U.S.S.R. beat Canada in Olympic hockey in 1956, it was a revelation. Now international competition is normal. The Olympics are one event among many. They follow Wimbledon, the British Open, the All-Star game; there must be an office somewhere scheduling this parade.

So the Olympics are really 20th-century retro, though that's been concealed by the Ancient Greek Origins mythology. Why was Bond an ideal figure to unmask this leftover? Because he was already ahead of the curve in the curve's heyday. He may have been racist, sexist and homophobic but he never bought into Cold War myths. His fights weren't against Soviets, they were against a silly evil criminal cartel called SPECTRE -- you can look it up. The Queen fits too, since British royalty was ahead of the populist monarchy curve, starting with Victoria in the 19th century. But their scene last week could never have played during a 20th-century Olympics; that stuff was still taken too seriously.

Its absence also helps expose the stupidity of ranking teams from countries of different sizes. If you really need to rank, how about jumbling the athletes into equally sized and skilled teams, like colour wars at summer camp? Would anyone watch? Sure. Most of us who watch sports on TV will watch anything.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Ben Sutherland/Flickr

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