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A Parade of Weird Little Worlds: Why I Like The Olympics

I wrote this piece four years ago, and thought it would be appropriate to repost it now. I’d probably write it somewhat differently now than I did then (less star-struck about meeting PZ Myers, for one thing); but in the interest of not being a revisionist swine, I’m leaving it as is. Enjoy!

Ingrid and I are not, generally speaking, sports fans. To put it mildly. (I had a brief stretch of fairly serious baseball fandom in the late '80s and early '90s, but I fell out of the habit in the strike of '94, and never got back into it.)

And yet, we are getting completely sucked into the Olympics.

I've been thinking about why.

Yes, we're watching the gymnastics and a couple of the other big-ticket events (diving is always a good time). And yes, I'm watching women's wrestling, for reasons that should be obvious. But mostly I'm being a big old dilettante, and am watching bits and pieces of the largely unsung sports.

Archery. Fencing. Badminton. Table tennis. Synchronized swimming and trampoline are coming up later this week, and I can't wait.

I'm having a ball with this.

Some of it is that it's always a good time to watch people doing something — anything at all — really, really well. The look of pure concentration on a person's face when they're deeply immersed in something they passionately love and are extraordinarily good at… it's one of the most beautiful sights there is.

And, of course, some of it is the two-week parade of beautiful athletic bodies in tight, skimpy outfits. My libidinal interest varies from sport to sport (sky-high for divers and female wrestlers, almost nil for weightlifters and female gymnasts), but I can't be the only erotic connoisseur/ drooling pervert who's getting off on this.

But most of it is this:

One of the things I love best about human beings is the way we create these weird little worlds for ourselves. The world of competitive ballroom dancing. Of model train building. Of comic book enthusiasts. Show dog owners. Historical recreation societies. Contra dancing. Atheist blogging. These worlds always call to mind for me a line from Dave Barry: "There's a fine line between a hobby and mental illness." Yet at the same time, they call to mind that line from the teenage kid from "Trekkies": "People tell me to get a life. Well, I have a life. This is a hobby. And having hobbies is part of having a life."

There are anthropologists and neurologists and evolutionary biologists who think that the human brain evolved to deal with about 100 or 150 other people, tops, and I'm convinced that the forming of these weird little worlds is a way of narrowing down the dauntingly enormous and increasingly interconnected global village into something a bit more manageable.

I love that each of these weird little worlds has not just its own skills and trends and passions, but its own gossip, its own politics, its own scandals and controversies. I love how immersed people get in our weird little worlds: how the issues of historically accurate shoes at Civil War re-enactments, or gender- balancing at contra dances, can seem like life or death. I love how much time and care and passion people put into these endeavors that will never make them famous or rich or remembered in the larger world, the world outside of a handful of equally demented enthusiasts.

And I love that these worlds have stars and celebrities that nobody on the outside has ever, ever heard of. If you don't do English country dancing, you've almost certainly never heard of Bare Necessities: and yet they are a band with a rabidly devoted following, across the country and around the world. And when Ingrid and I met PZ Myers on a recent visit he made to the Bay Area, we told all our friends about it with bubbly excitement… to be met with almost universal blank stares. (Stares that got even blanker when we explained that he was "a famous biologist and atheist blogger.")

As thousands of pundits have noted before me, the world is becoming ickily homogenous, filled with depressingly interchangeable supermarkets and strip malls, processed foods and chain restaurants. But the weird little worlds of hobbyists and enthusiasts are a bulwark against that tendency. Whenever I despair over humanity losing its quirkiness, all I have to do is read the Carnival of the Godless, or go queer contra dancing, or turn on "Project Runway" and watch the contestants pissing themselves with excitement over some fashion designer I've never heard of.

And what I love about the Olympics is that, for two weeks every four years, I get a peek inside a dozen or so of these worlds.

I love finding out what the strategy is in weightlifting (yes, there's strategy — I know, it was news to me as well), and that it's forbidden in Olympic weightlifting to lubricate your thighs. I love learning that a round of play in archery is called an "end." I love discovering the existence of a triathlon-style sport that combines running, swimming, fencing, shooting, and equestrian… and learning that it was invented as a narrative of a soldier ordered to deliver a message on horseback.

And I love how intensely immersed the athletes are in their worlds, how hard they work to become so superbly good in them with so little in the way of obvious payoff.

I mean, it's easy to understand why you'd want to be a famous gymnast or a multi- medal- winning swimmer. If you succeed, you actually get a fair degree of fame and fortune in the larger world. But if you sacrifice years of your life to become the absolute top of your game in archery or fencing or badminton, nobody is ever going to know about it but your immediate circle of family and friends, a handful of other archers and fencers and badmintonites… and every four years, some weirdos like me, who could care less about Michael Phelps's eight gold medals but get intensely sucked into the women's saber competition for about fifteen minutes.

I love that they do it anyway.

(P.S. Tivo helps with this a lot, btw. I can't believe I ever watched the Olympics without it. Tivo lets you watch all the weird events you want to watch… and skip the ones you think are boring.)

Ballroom dance photo by Petr Novak, Wikipedia.

Comments

  1. mildlymagnificent says

    Exactly!

    There are all kinds of how-do-they-do-that! moments when watching things like table tennis or what-just-happened-there?!! in fencing. And when you feel like a nice, overwhelming dose of slack-jawed awe you can watch the supreme grace and power of 10 metre diving or male gymnasts suspended on those rings.

    As for all those other activities. It’s great when you go to a family wedding and talk to a cousin you’ve not seen for years – with sparkling eyes and flashing hands describing their involvement in remote controlled boats or Landcare groups revegetating wetlands or coaching their under 9s soccer team or helping out with meals on wheels.

    Noone else could possibly be interested in their problems with fund-raising for new sports equipment or bureaucrats demanding upgraded kitchens or delivery boxes or the local politics of who does or doesn’t control waterways. But the world simply wouldn’t run straight without lots of people doing lots of these ‘little’ things.

  2. Predator Handshake says

    I was curious about handball, never having seen it before, and got instantly sucked in the minute I started streaming it. I love that NBC is streaming events they don’t show on TV this year, because when they’re busy prattling on about Michael Phelps I can find a handball or water polo match.

    I do have to wonder, Greta, about the difference in your libidinal interest in wrestlers versus weightlifters. I may be paying too much attention to the previous sentence about their outfits; is it the additional component of direct competition that makes the difference? I don’t mean to be nosy; I wrestled in high school so any time I see someone speaking positively about the sport (even if it’s not quite the same style as what most high schools do) I get really excited and want to talk about it.

  3. smhll says

    Archery. Fencing. Badminton. Table tennis. Synchronized swimming and trampoline are coming up later this week, and I can’t wait.

    I’m having a ball with this.

    I think I intuited your point right after this section. It brought to mind to me the idea I’ve head that liberals enjoy variety more than conservatives, who could perhaps watch the same sport all season long without losing interest. (grin)

    Makes me wonder if bird watchers tend to be liberal, as their desire to see all of the birds is, in away, an enthusiasm for avian diversity.

    People who like the near infinite diversity of human passions, might like the book Who Are You People? A Personal Journey into the Heart of Fanatical Passion in America. However, it presents the outsider view, rather than expressing the POV of the passionate people themselves.

  4. Elizabeth says

    I love this article (even if it is a reprint), because it is exactly how I feel.

    I think this is why it pisses me off when I hear things like what happened this week with the badminton problems.

    “Why is badminton even a sport?” was a headline / editorial everywhere.
    This kind of thing saddens me about the US – just because it isn’t popular here, or doesn’t seem “macho” enough, or whatever, that it couldn’t be called a sport.

  5. Trebuchet says

    If I watch some of those female athletes with the same sort of libidinal interest, but am male, does that make me a bad person? I hope not!

    My own weird little world is building machines to hurl pumpkins in the fall. I think you’ve just made me understand it a little bit better.

  6. mildlymagnificent says

    Building machines? Yes!

    One of my daughters has a group of engineer friends who are always looking for somewhere spacious to ‘play with’ their never-quite-completed trebuchets. I always make sure I don’t get cornered by any of these enthusiasts once the liquid refreshments have been flowing for more than a couple of rounds.

  7. says

    The Olympics also still has things that make you go…no, that’s just NOT possible.

    That man just leaped backwards over the effective height of my living room ceiling. I’d have to jump just to touch that bar with my hand.

    That woman just threw something like a bowling ball 73 feet.

    These are credulity defying acts. Absurd in the best possible way. I find myself laughing…for god’s sake, really?

  8. mildlymagnificent says

    Laughing? Absurd?

    Don’t know if I’ve laughed, but I do find myself sitting here with an unexpected silly smile on my dial sometimes.

  9. Trebuchet says

    One of my daughters has a group of engineer friends who are always looking for somewhere spacious to ‘play with’ their never-quite-completed trebuchets. I always make sure I don’t get cornered by any of these enthusiasts once the liquid refreshments have been flowing for more than a couple of rounds.

    Back in ’06 my machine had a major malfunction on the first test shot the day before competition. Using my training, I later did a “root cause” analysis. The answer, unfortunately, was beer. I’ve never had beer with lunch on a hurling day since then.

    By the way, there’s no such thing as a “completed” trebuchet.

    I’m going to watch Beach Volleyball now.

  10. ik says

    I agree so much with this.

    ONe thing that you are missing is the medium sized worlds. I feel like we don’t have those very well either.

  11. 'Tis Himself says

    smhall #3

    I think I intuited your point right after this section. It brought to mind to me the idea I’ve head that liberals enjoy variety more than conservatives, who could perhaps watch the same sport all season long without losing interest.

    I have interest in one sport and one sport only. Don’t ask me where the Boston Red Sox are in the standings. I have no idea who won the Coup de Stanley last time. Does Manchester U ever play Real Madrid in feetsball? I don’t know these things, I don’t know and don’t care.

    However, I know that Jonas Hogh-Christensen of Denmark is beating Ben Ainslie of the UK by 4 points in Finns* and Australia has pretty much locked up the gold in Elliott 6 Metres**.

    I’m a self-identified liberal. Sorry that I don’t meet your stereotype.

    *Men’s heavy single-handed dinghy.

    **Women’s three-handed keel boat. This is the only Olympic class where the contestants are match racing (two boats going head to head). All other classes do regatta racing, where a group races against each other.

  12. Cuttlefish says

    Olympics junkie here.

    While I’ll not deny the aesthetic appeal, nor the occasional libidinal, there is more. For instance, right now I am watching the replay of the Women’s 75kg weightlifting (haven’t missed any of the weightlifting–I tend to watch the things I don’t get a chance to the rest of the weeks/months/years). Yes, some of the women are stunningly gorgeous, and some are remarkably built, but beyond this… I just watched utter and absolute joy, (like a toddler discovering butterflies), heartbreaking sorrow, and pride that literally brought me to tears (the Kazakhstan winner’s reaction). The raw emotions, from women who have a pretty decent chance of being able to deadlift my house, are like heroin to me.

    And you see it across the board, from rowers to swimmers to archers to fencers to you name it. The same joy parents get from watching the world through their children’s eyes, you can get every four (well, two) years from the Olympic Games.

  13. Pieter B, FCD says

    The look of pure concentration on a person’s face when they’re deeply immersed in something they passionately love and are extraordinarily good at… it’s one of the most beautiful sights there is.

    Absolutely. I love the Games, for this and many other reasons. There are some sports I can do without, e.g. golf will be added next time around, but one can’t watch them all, so why complain—just watch something else.

    I love that women are competing in traditionally men’s sports like water polo and wrestling. The women lifters, especially the lightweights, are fierce, a word much overused these days.

    http://www.nbcolympics.com/news-blogs/weightlifting/chinshanlo-sets-world-record-in-womens-53kg.html

  14. Devin Emarr says

    I love this post.

    I am not really a sports fan, either, and up till now I hadn’t really been watching the Olympics, mostly because I don’t own a TV, but also because it just didn’t interest me that much.

    You have given me a new perspective on it.

    And, as a PC gamer dork, tabletop RPG dork, and obviously an Internet dork, I liked the little defense of weirdness you worked in there. I’ll have to use that sometime.

  15. MNb0 says

    “I can’t be the only erotic connoisseur/ drooling pervert who’s getting off on this.”
    Absolutely not. My father, who otherwise thought sport a complete bore, used to be a huge fan of Edwin Moses. He also was way more interested in sport in the 70’s, when shorts used to be much shorter.
    As far as I am concerned, I think girl gymnasts (they are very young) and usually female athletes way to skinny. I prefer ice skating. Those suits are so tight, those thigh muscles so well developed.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtmpkV2adVU

    I think you and Ingrid should give the Winter Olympics a shot as well.
    There is an SM-element as well. The pain they suffer in the last rounds is unimaginable unless you have skated yourself.

  16. Smhlle says

    @15

    I think Joe Scalzi wrote something cool this week about geek enthusiasms and sharing geek love.

  17. lcaution says

    Wonderful post. Captures my feelings about both the Olympics and all of the unique worlds that exist inside the big one.

    I have a special affection for the athletes who have no chance to medal. They probably train just as hard, under considerably worse circumstances, than the top athletes. They may be in major sports or minor ones. They know they won’t win or place. But they train and train and train and do their very best. That takes a very special kind of determination and courage: to do one’s very best regardless of how that best stacks up against the rest.

  18. Armored Scrum Object says

    One thing that’s great about the variety in the Olympics is how the variation among bodies in different sports vividly drives home the point that while there might be some vague notion of (say) an ideal gymnast’s body or an ideal swimmer’s body, the concept of a generically ideal body is absurd. There’s certainly some overlap in advantageous characteristics, but there’s just as certainly no Hercules or Atalanta out there so perfectly sculpted as to effortlessly medal in every event.

  19. says

    Ah, the libidinal aspect. It’s strange, while I don’t recall any women that stood out to me particularly in the Olympics, one of the only times I’ve actually felt physical attraction to men was watching the male swimmers in ’08. No clue why.

    I need to watch that modern pentathlon sport. That sounds like the coolest goddamn thing ever.

  20. says

    Yes it is a pity. It does not work under IOS5 yet.Patel Hiren does not show any reaction if he will update.I suggest to give him a mail. This will probably wake him up.

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