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Poor Summer Olympic Games. They are definitely not the World Cup. These are the two most watched sporting events in the world, and are talked about for a whole year. But it’s hard for anyone to say bad things about the World Cup, since at the end of the day, they decide that it’s a lot of fun.
But with the Olympics, those who don’t watch it or engage in the fanfare display apathy towards it, while those who watch it do so with great cynicism.
Most Indonesians do not really care about the Olympics. We know that it is being held. We know that Indonesia could win medals in sports such as badminton and weightlifting. But since so many Indonesians are now so fixated on soccer, specifically European soccer, most Indonesians do not really follow the games, or their athletes who are competing. Men’s football is probably drawing some Indonesian spectators, but it is still seen as a novelty, compared to the sold-out European championship last June.
In other Western countries, the Olympics are taken with a grain of salt. There are supporting cases for this view — the heavy-handed copyrighting measure which forbids the five-ring symbol to be used by the public, stern warnings against athletes displaying personal sponsors on their uniforms and athletes making racist remarks online. And of course the cocktail of chauvinism, self-hatred and stereotyping among pundits and viewers which is ever-present back home.
It is said that the Olympics are the only chance for Americans to see their sporting heroes competing against foreigners instead of members of rival clubs, and the media embrace it with gusto – often resulting in outrage when Americans miss out on a medal.
Thanks to London, the air of cynicism is not quite as thick as it was four years ago, when the Olympic Games were held in China. The Indonesian press, who have mixed feelings for China, could cheer the athletes on for triumphing over Western nations (especially the United States), and at the same time reveal their subconscious thoughts regarding the arrogance (“China shows off its power”) and the aggressiveness (“The rocking of the Dragon”) of the Chinese.
Western mainstream media can certainly be calmer, although American bloggers and commentators still accused the Chinese athletes of either taking performance-enhancing drugs, age cheating, or blaming Barack Obama for the decline of American sports.
But everyone could enjoy the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games without suspicion of propaganda. Because no matter what people think about the British (especially those who were colonized by them), the world loves Mr. Bean, James Bond (despite his questionable acts), and The Beatles’ Paul McCartney.
That is a time when I enjoy the Olympic spirit. All the countries in the world are represented and their athletes are happily marching in a parade, wearing their national costumes. When the games begin, I show my nephew that there is no correlation between one’s nationality and his or her skin tone and surname. A Zimbabwean can be white. A Swiss can be black. A Dutch can have an Indonesian name. Many table tennis players were born in China but are now representing various nations, but they can love and support other nations too. Tony Gunawan represents the US and Ronald Susilo plays for Singapore, but no one can accuse them of abandoning Indonesia.
Twelve years ago, I arrived in Australia at the time of the Sydney Olympics. It was also an interesting and eye-opening time and experience for me, as I was enrolling in a language school for international students.
In the class I studied with Koreans, Thais, Chinese, Russians and Taiwanese. For a presentation topic, I chose the Sydney Olympics, and it became a lively presentation as I had asked my classmates to name their favorite Olympians, and then showed them how their nations were faring in the medal tally.
My Russian partner also had a lively debate with the teacher regarding Tatiana Grigorieva, a Russia-born pole vaulter who was representing Australia. That was when I realized I chose an interesting topic, and proved that the world was indeed small.
Thankfully, now ESPN Star Sports caters to the Southeast Asian audience for the Olympics. Rather than seeing the games through the lens of Indonesians, I also see it from the perspective of Malaysians, Singaporeans and Thais. Indeed, one advertisement on the network shows the front yards of a typical Indonesian house, a Malaysian house and a Singaporean apartment. The network also keeps track of Southeast Asian athletes and their events.
There is such a thing as the Olympic spirit, and I am indeed experiencing it. While we can only observe it, we can still feel that these are our games, as well as our friends’ games.
With the current air of ultra nationalism and jingoism rising, especially in Asia, it is important to remember that the world is larger and more important than a mere rock in the middle of a solar system.
Every time medal winners embrace each other on the podium, it is a reminder that that is the way it should be.
The writer teaches English and Australian cultural studies.