The Politics    Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Olympics really do give us reason to hope

By Sean Kelly

The Olympics really do give us reason to hope
And we can use it in a pessimistic time

I am finding myself oddly moved by these Olympics. I normally pay a bit of attention to the Games, without really committing myself to emotional narratives I may find it difficult to disentangle myself from afterwards. Olympians, to me, are a little like those cicadas which come above ground every 17 years. You can appreciate their presence, perhaps even glory in their evanescence, the fleeting joy of them, but it is best not to become too attached. As a result, my involvement in the Games is sidelong at best. I do not think about them beforehand, nor afterwards. Any knowledge I have is gained quickly and shed faster.

On Saturday morning, having clicked on an article or two online, I suddenly realised the Games would be starting, and flicked on the television, drawn by the lure of novelty. I watched the opening ceremony. Actually, that would be understandable. More precisely: I watched ten minutes of the ceremony itself. After that was done, I watched – by this stage with my partner, who had joined me in bafflement at my behaviour – the athletes of every nation parading through Maracana Stadium. We watched these men and women slowly walking for two hours.

If you’re wondering what else there is to observe during this parade – fireworks or choreographed dancing, for example – the answer is nothing. It is just one set of athletes after another walking through the stadium waving flags and taking selfies.

I found it hypnotic. Some of the fascination came in the different qualities of the national contingents. The Russians seemed miserably sheepish. The Spaniards were chaotically ecstatic. The Australians, like the Canadians, were moderate in everything. And this was interesting, as far as it went.

Mostly, though, the appeal lay in seeing people from every single country gathered in one place. 205 countries represented by athletes who had striven to be in this precise location at this precise moment in time.

There was something utopian about the sight, an antiquated quality inherent in the whole idea of the Olympics – a feeling one might associate with the salad days of the League of Nations. Utopianism is out of fashion now, and for good reason: in many nations those impulses delivered unmitigated misery and horror. Individuals claiming to have found the one way to make the world a better place have earned our mistrust. And yet that belief – that the world might yet be a better place, and that we might yet make it so – comes from an optimism we cannot afford to displace entirely.

This is an easy period for pessimists. And, it must be said, pessimism is necessary: believing that the current bundle of woes facing us will be cured by ‘human ingenuity’ or ‘democratic safeguards’ or any of the usual clichés is a straight road to disaster.

Optimism, on the other hand, seems in bad taste. In her thoughtful review of the Avalanches’ recent album, their first in almost two decades, Anwen Crawford addressed the cross-currents of nostalgia, technology, politics and pop music, concluding: “The Avalanches seem stuck in a moment they can’t get out of, when the 21st century was new and unblemished. Since I Left You and Wildflower have arrived 16 years apart and they sound essentially the same. But now the hopefulness feels misplaced. Call it bad timing.”

Bad timing was something our prime minister, too, discovered during the recent election campaign, as his insistence that “there has never been a more exciting time to be Australian” was met with reactions between anger and indifference. (As the title of a new book about the campaign has it: What a Time to be Alive: That and other lies in the 2016 campaign.)

And this scornful mood is one Donald Trump is both exploiting and propelling, as he travels around America gaining more traction than anyone believed possible with his dystopian visions of a great nation gone to rot.

It would be easy to apply a similarly cynical filter to the Olympics, that expensive piece of pageantry glorifying schadenfreude and drug cheats. But it is the hopeful stories that are attracting my attention this time around. The huge cheers for the Refugee Olympic Team, a team entered this year by the International Olympic Committee to “act as a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide and bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis”. The fact that the flag-bearer for Iran was the first woman of that country to earn an Olympic or Paralympic gold medal. The first same-sex married couple to compete in the Games.

Some of these are stories of progress. But for me the decision of the Brazilians to focus on climate change in the opening ceremony, and the choice of the IOC to recognise the massive global population of refugees, both in front of billions of television viewers, were the most significant, because they were not only reflections of a shifting world but conscious decisions by groups of people to play their role in shifting the world.

If there is an answer to the questions being posed by this period in history, it lies there.

Pessimism without the corrective of hope is just defeatism. Optimism without basis is foolhardiness. But the 2016 Olympics, so far, are offering us the glintings of reasons to believe we might still pull through this awful time. I realise that I’m sounding sentimental, perhaps naively so. If we all felt that way for a fortnight, or even beyond, would that be such a bad thing?


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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