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.
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.