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Since I was a child, I have loved the Olympics, but a lot has changed in the world since the black-and-white moral conflict of the cold war (and a lot has changed for me since I was a child living in blood-red rural America). As one of the few venues where the nations of the Earth convene, the Olympics gives us a god’s eye view of the international order (albeit through the darkened lens of corporate sponsorship and whatever NBC thinks will appeal to the most American viewers). As the games proceed we can talk about some of what we are viewing. For example, I think the Tokyo Olympics will illustrate how America’s ongoing political crisis is leading to precipitous national decline even more starkly than say the manifold failures of our navy or the savage buffoonery of our national legislature. But we will see! The games have yet to be played and there are always surprises. First let’s talk about the opening ceremony.

One of the ways the Olympics outshine quotidian sports contests is by throwing little tidbits to other disciplines like fashion, music, technology, art, and dance. The original Olympics had medals for music, literature, and the arts, and, although such cultural contests have been subsumed by the dictates of modern broadcasting, elements remain within the pageantry and protocol of the games. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening ceremony–which certainly showcased Japan’s continuing expertise at robotics (and also featured some delightfully preposterous dance routines). However the real spectacle worth watching is the parade of nations! We get to see almost all of the other nations of Earth and a sample of how they dress for fancy occasions, not to mention a prime lineup of extremely fit human beings of all shapes and varieties.

Ghana’s flag bearer, Nadia Eke

It was wonderful, like it always is. Also, after a year or more of watching anxious and sick people on TV, the athletes looked particularly happy and healthy. I don’t know about you, but my heart soared with delight seeing that flag holder from Ghana dance into the stadium with such graceful & proud bearing.

And there was so much more! There were Bermudans in Bermuda shorts! There were magnificent gleaming Hercules chests (these days, Tonga is not the only nation headlined by a magnificent oiled muscleman!)

Who wore it butter?

There were jewels and gold from the Persian Gulf.

I really liked the style of the bejeweled Bahraini athletes!
The Hungarians themselves look great, though

Of course there were also fashion choices which failed to “stick the landing” too. Hungary is an amazing country but their outfits made them look like the title sequence of the gory film I watched in driver’s ed! Maybe let’s try to avoid red spatters in future costumes.

Sartorial magnificence of every flavor was on display. However to my eyes, the most beautiful costumes belonged to the athletes from…Benin? Their regal embroidered tunics and dresses of royal blue featured fluorescent pink and aqua floral icons. These matched their magnificent satin hats (of name unknown to me). I wasn’t expecting the word’s 163rd wealthiest nation to win the international fashion contest (in fact half of my favorite things from my notes are from nations on the Gulf of Guinea!), but like I said, half of the delight of the Olympics comes from joyful surprises.

America’s outfits were fine, I suppose, but the dark navy blue on top of dark denim read as almost black. Also, I always worry that our nation mistakes casual comfort for elegance, which is to say I thought we maybe looked a bit like lazy villains (which suits the past four years, I guess).

Anyway, the opening parade is over and we can get back showing off in venue which primatologists (or bio-scientists of any stripe) will instantly recognize: physical competition. But before we get too competitive I hope we hold onto a bit of the international amity and open delight in the appearance and actions of foreigners which characterized the opening ceremony. Something tells me we are going to need to love each other a lot more if we are going to survive what is coming (much less make it through to a glowing future of thriving forests, healthy oceans, joyful children, and giant space arks). But somewhere in that Olympics parade there are always things that make me think that such a world is at least possible.

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Crown from the Akan people of Ghana | Velvet, wood and gold leaf | Early to mid 1900

The Akan people are a matrilineal culture of west Africa who have dominated the Gold Coast (present Day Ghana) sine the 11th century AD.  It is believed that they migrated from the Sahara and the Sahel due to desertification and famine.  Akan political hierarchy has the same sort of feudal layering familiar from medieval Europe.  Powerful emperors and kings ruled over lesser local kings who in turn demanded liege homage from war chieftains and local chiefs.  As in medieval Europe, all of these tiers of kings, leaders, chiefs, and aristocrats involved plenty of materialistic status objects.  The Gold Coast derives its name not in a Greenland/Iceland style misdirection campaign, or from the Gold Family, or because of the glittering yellow sunsets.  It is called that because large quantities of gold were found there in historical times.  All of which leads us to today’s crown, which was crafted for an important chief or a lesser king of the the Akan sometime in the 19th century.  The dominant (and delightful) feature of the headdress are geometric charms crafted of wood and covered with gold leaf.  Against the black velvet background they look a bit like the starry nighttime sky. The charms undoubtedly have indivdual symbolic meanings which are beyond me, but the larger meaning–that the wearer is an important person with wealth and important connections–are instantly obvious.  One symbol though is quite recognizable: the crown is surmounted by star and crescent symbol of Islam which was brought to the Akan early on by caravan traders from the north.  For centuries Islam has existed alongside the ancient traditional mythology (which involves a spider sky god!) and Christianity.

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