George Takei, as he so often is, was exactly right when he offered his commentary on the tragedy at Aurora, Colorado. In a Facebook post after the shootings, Takei got to the source of the pathos underlying an already abhorrent situation: the victims “stood in line to be the first to see, to be inspired, and to escape,” and instead came face to face with a cruelty beyond understanding. Takei called the moviegoers “a community of dreamers,” and as comedian Doug Benson later lamented on his podcast, the shooting might chip away at one of the few communal events we have left in an increasingly atomized, isolated world: going to the movies.
The Olympics, as much as they celebrate outstanding individual achievement and resolve, are another of this dwindling number of shared experiences. In spite of the Games’ rampant issues and the historical temptation to jingoistic groupthink (U-S-A! U-S-A!), it’s this communal spirit that makes the Olympics so valuable.
Let’s not gloss over those problems, though. Though FIFA makes them look (appropriately enough) like amateurs, the IOC is still a historically corrupt organization whose high-minded ideals of amateurism hold up under scrutiny about as well as those of the NCAA. The presentation of the games is as bad as it’s ever been thanks to NBC’s much-derided decision not only to tape-delay events, but to present them as though they were live. At the nadir of NBC’s programming, Bob Costas even had to deliver a ridiculous “spoiler alert” about Usain Bolt’s victory in the 100 meters hours earlier. Toss in doping scandals, a thrown badminton game, and the utter incompetence surrounding the Shin A Lam fencing travesty–which at least yielded the iconic image of Shin’s defiant stand–and the London Games have had their fair share of missteps.
But those missteps help to demonstrate why, for better or worse, these have become the “Social Media” Games (coin a phrase). Beginning with the astonishing opening ceremonies–your mileage may vary, as the Queen could tell you, but they were certainly something–these Olympics have demanded interaction and instantaneous commentary. NBC’s incompetence, for one, has provided grist for the mill of hundreds of blog posts and thousands of tweets, starting with their decision to air a typically bland Michael Phelps interview instead of Danny Boyle’s memorial to the victims of the 2005 London Underground bombings.
In the process of mocking “#nbcfail”–and, more importantly, getting swept away with truly stunning examples of the shrinking limits of human endeavor–people collect organically into fluctuating communities with each new event, often with a direct line to the athletes themselves. As transitory as these groups by definition are, they also represent social networking at its finest. Moreover, they generally make the games far more entertaining, like watching a comedy in a packed theater.
The U.S. Men’s Basketball team is a perfect example of the phenomenon, despite its status as probably the single biggest offender against the Olympics’ sham amateurism. In light of the team’s absurd talent and expectations, the media narrative oscillates with Network-level hyperbole. Either they’re the second coming of the Dream Team for getting hot against a team like poor Nigeria, or a bald eagle somewhere is crying a single, manly tear of disappointment when they fall a few points behind, say, Tunisia. The meta-commentary on that narrative, along with even more ephemeral discussion of things like Chris Paul’s weird predilection for gigantic hats, livens up what’s otherwise a routine display of dominance. And sometimes, the dominance is enough; the interconnectedness of these Games exponentially magnifies our awe when LeBron James and Kevin Durant look like visitors from Basketball Asgard. Just ask Lithuania and Argentina.
The stuff that doesn’t work–the contrived rivalry between Phelps and the unbearable Ryan Lochte, the weird heel turn of McKayla Maroney into Regina George from Mean Girls, the very idea of televised dressage–has been overshadowed by the Games’ many triumphs of personality. No longer stuck spending every waking moment being objectified, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh can finally be appreciated for their ability to leave opponents’ hopes outlined in chalk with the cold consistency of the grave. Usain Bolt has continued his impressive run as Bizarro Michael Phelps, becoming the living embodiment of showmanship whenever he sets foot on the track.
Obscurer games like handball and water polo (which, if you haven’t seen it, is basically competitive waterboarding) are thriving in boom-or-bust viewership cycles. Most importantly, timeless things, like the infectious team spirit of Destinee Hooker and the women’s volleyball team, the unalloyed joy of Chad le Clos’ half-Afrikaaner, half-Cookie Monster dad, and the thrill of the women’s soccer team’s semifinal against Canada, are as resonant as ever.
Are the Olympics perfect? Certainly not, and as professional mope Morrissey has warned, the communal spirit they create has the potential to veer into dangerous nationalism. But at a time when average people feel consistently and fundamentally alone, these artificial, shifting, voluntary communities are more valuable than ever. That’s why the Olympics, warts and all, remain something worth celebrating.