“Made in China” has taken on new meaning. Both the opening and closing ceremonies at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest made Cirque de Soleil, with all due respect, seem like a carnival sideshow. But their images will remain for generations. What happened in between, the games themselves, mesmerized the world even more. For two solid weeks, young, and not so young, athletes from just about every nation on the planet met, mingled and competed, providing a stunning metaphor for what our world might be, if only.
Nationalism, as at every Olympics (with rare exception), showed its best face as medal winners swaddled themselves in their countries’ flags and nations’ anthems saluted gold. The “level playing fields” of Beijing’s Games became a meeting place apart and away from politics and ideologies. And the community of nations was at peace in that place – because they knew and respected and played by the rules.
Elsewhere, on other not-so-level playing fields, other kinds of games go on. War, torture, genocide, terrorism know no winners. Racism, sexual abuse, human rights violations and crimes of any kind are evil games that degrade every one of us, no matter our nation or politics. They tell us we are not even close to being the best we can be. All defy the basic rules of humanity.
Perhaps that is why the Olympics are so important to our world. For a few moments every two years they remind us what the community of nations could be like if everyone played by the same rules. Far from perfect, to be sure, as were the Games. But better – and closer to what this world could be like, if only.
The United Nations was created after World War II to see if that were possible. But to this day the United Nations falls well short of being nations united.
While thinking about this piece I needed to clarify the distinction between nationalism and patriotism. The former has a dark side that can be small-minded, self-serving and dangerous. The latter offers a challenge to those who would be patriots, and I am hoping that after these games every Olympic athlete will choose to accept it.
Patriotism, said the Greek philosopher Socrates, “does not require one to agree with everything that his country does and would actually promote analytical questioning in a quest to make the country the best it possibly can be.” Not only that, the classical notion of patriotism includes social responsibility as well as a devotion to humanity.
What I am getting at is this: What happened in Beijing does not have to stay in Beijing. Returning home, 11,000 Olympians can become patriots by spreading the word that nations united – knowing, respecting and playing by the same rules – can provide us all a better world. What happened in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest deserves to take wing, if only because now, more than ever, it seems, our world needs to quell the chaos that is tearing it apart.
The Games of 2008 tell us it is possible. If only.