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uhPsEI really enjoyed the 31st Olympics…but then I have always really enjoyed the Olympics.  I was raised in rural America during the end of the Cold War and I love the United State of America with all my heart.  I remember the glow of pride when the Star-Spangled Banner would play as the gleaming American stood atop the podium while the glowering Russian looked up from the step below.  Not only was it great drama, but it was a bonding event as well. My family would watch the games together—and everyone else in the community would be following the international spectacle too. In the middle of the country, the Olympics reminded a sports-crazed community about different sorts of people who we didn’t see too often in rural Ohio. These days I live in heterogeneous libertine New York—plus I have been around and seen some things—but I still love America and I still feel exactly the same way about the Olympics. Indeed, perhaps the Olympics are even better now that they are untainted by Cold War posturing and now that my experience of the world is broader.

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Growing up, the sports which the neighbors loved were the big 3 professional sports: basketball, baseball, and, above all, American football.  These are large institutional sports with lots of expensive equipment and pettifogging rules. They seem to mostly benefit a bunch of state college administrators and arrogant millionaires.  As a child, I found them dull (although I later learned to enjoy them as a beer-swilling observer).

The Olympics however was a rare window to a much finer world of amazing sports!  There are sports of true martial prowess: archery, shooting, judo, and fencing.  There are sports with horses and sports with boats.  There are sports for rugged individualist and sports for teams.  All sorts of athletes of tremendously different sizes, shapes, and agility compete and their very different attributes are a source of collective strength. The little 1.3 meter (4 foot 6 inch) gymnast can do amazing things that the juggernaut 2 meter (6 foot 8 inch)  shotput thrower who weighs as much as a gnu cannot…and vice versa. The freak with a muscular noodle for a torso and huge flippery feet metamorphoses into a dolphin in the pool.  The slender diver morphs into a falcon.  It should go without saying that America’s athletes, like Americans, are from every different ethnic backgrounds and walk of life. That tremendous range is a huge advantage in the Olympics…not just because it gives the nation a pool of athletes with lots of different body types and strengths but because it provides people who have lots of different perspectives on hard work and success.

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The self-discipline of the athletes is evident not just in their chiseled bodies or lightning speed, but in the intensity of their expressions.  And, when they win, the champions typically don’t talk about their “yuge” victories but instead talk about minute differences of grip or stroke or technique …then maybe they enthuse about their families and loved ones. It is very refreshing in our age of PR blitzes and self aggrandizement.

We need to hold these memories in our heart this year, as politicians and effete taste-makers work hard to divide us.   The nation needs to remember our original motto:  “e pluribus unum”.

America needs to be work harder to be worthy of our hard-working young athletes. The Olympics remind us that we are all on the same team—the Christian fundamentalist divers, the Islamic swordswomen, the atheists, the city kids and country kids, the team players and the rugged individuals, black, white, Asian, Indian, Native American, gay, straight…everyone is so different but they are all working together to tally up all of those medals.

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Anyone who aspires to national leadership needs to recognize that, just as team USA needs little gymnasts and huge weight-lifters and all sorts of people in between, the real team USA– the nation itself–requires ever so many more different sorts of folks.  We need both the sharp-eyed riflemen from Kentucky and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair. We need Jews and Gentiles, Mormons and Taoists, black folks and white ones.  We need number people and word people and image people. We need people we don’t even know we need.  The people of the United States are heterogeneous but we stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that.

Ancient Attic Pottery Showing the Sport of Pankration

Ancient Attic Pottery Showing the Sport of Pankration

The mixed martial art of the ancient Greek world was pankration, a brutal mixture of boxing and wrestling with no real rules other than a proscription against biting and eye gouging.  Victory was simple: one fighter prevailed when his opponent verbally yielded, was knocked unconscious, or died.  The story of the greatest Pankration fighter in Greek history, Arrichion of Phigalia, reveals much about Greek athletic values, but it also an all-time classical story about the human quest for glory (and about the elusive vicissitudes of the world).

Arrichion of Phigalia was the equivalent of a franchise sports star in the 6th century world.  He won crushing victories to claim the victory wreath in pankration at the Olympics of 572 and 568 B.C. and he was a well-paid fan favorite. By the Olympics of 564 B.C. however he was much older and the many no-holds-barred fights of his career were catching up with him.  Also there was a fast young fighter who seemed poised to finally unseat the aging champion.

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Both Arrichion and the up-and-coming young athlete made it to the final bout to contend for the gold medal and the laurel.  Arrichion was tired from the earlier bouts but still fighting with brutal vigor when suddenly the challenger caught him in a choke hold.  Desperately Arrichion grabbed the younger man’s foot and wrenched with all his strength—which caused an audible pop.  The challenger throttled Arrichion, while Arrichion ground the broken foot back and forth.  So agonizing was the pain from his broken foot that, at last, the challenger tapped out.  Arrichion was undefeated champion of pankration yet again!  However when the combatants were separated it was discovered that he had died of suffocation in procuring his victory.

The unblemished nature of Arrichion’s career became part the Greek’s athletic ideal and he was immortalized in sculpture and even in history (which is why we know about any of this).  The cynical modern reader wonders though if this is what Arrichion would have chosen.  In some corner of the Peloponnese, the ghost of Greek sports enthusiastically nods that it is indeed exactly what the fighter would have wanted.

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