All Different, all the Same
Published: Sunday | August 17, 2008

The Olympics may be the most unifying international force humankind has ever known. Over a billion persons watched the opening ceremonies in Beijing. And black, white, yellow or brown, who didn't feel a momentary sense of kinship with every one of the 204 national contingents parading by? All different, yet all the same human beings as us. This, too, am I.

Birth nationality is a cosmic accident. Why here instead of there? And as the camera panned each squad, I pondered what it would have been like to grow up in, say, Togo, Estonia or Qatar. Or Indonesia, Russia or Nigeria. How would my experience of life have differed?

Size, for instance, must change things. Obviously I'm prejudiced. But looking on, Jamaica seemed just the right size - neither claustrophobically small, like the Cook Islands, nor so populous as to make individualism seem almost impossible, like India.

Inevitably, I felt a special affinity for the countries whose mother tongue is also English. Language, in my experience, is a stronger bond than race or religion. We can't read minds, and so only feel wholehearted empathy for those who can express their feelings in a language we comprehend.

Unpleasant truth

We're all human beings doing the best we can, and laugh and cry over the same things. But without a shared tongue, we have to assume this on trust, and can never quite confirm it. That only banalities cross linguistic barriers is an unpleasant truth. So, thank God for interpreters, and for my native speech becoming the de facto global lingua franca. It saves us arrogant 'Englishers' the bother of language lessons.

My two grandfathers were born in China. But not speaking 10 words of the language naturally limits my emotional attachment to the land of half my ancestors. Maybe that's why I found the Beijing opening ceremony visually spectacular but emotionally boring. A deeper knowledge of, and attachment to, China's 3,000-year history might have left me enthralled.

As it was, I lost interest after about 20 minutes and began thinking about how much practice those thousands of performers had to go through. When you have 48-hour straight practice sessions, as one Chinese official boasted to reporters, and spend US$43 billion, the estimated total cost of the Beijing Games, well you should get everything perfect. And spare a thought for Liu Yan, one of China's top classical dancers, who plunged 10 feet while practising for the opening ceremonies, and may now be paralysed for life.

It's curious that the Olympic tradition started in 776 BC should so appeal to the modern mind. But then, so much of our culture and pastimes had roots in Ancient Greece. Geometry, history, drama, philosophy and democracy were all practically invented in a few hundred years by what was even then a small population of people, who then proceeded to practically vanish from history, modern Greece having little genetic or cultural connection with classical Athens. Proving once again that there's no such thing as permanent inherent superiority of any kind. Still, what made those ancient Greeks so special?

Marvellous testimony

With 28 sports on display, and a raft of sub-disciplines within, the Olympics are a marvellous testimony to our seemingly endless capacity for devising new ways to compete physically. What drives people to dedicate four years of their lives to pastimes like fencing or synchronised swimming, in which they have no chance of making a living wage? 'What's not worth doing, is not worth doing well', scoff cynics like me. But here nobler souls seek a pure and perfectly pointless excellence for its own sake. Which must be applauded in this increasingly materialistic world. The Olympics show that whatever man is, he will never be a purely economic animal.

They demonstrate, too, how adaptable humans are. Though all our genes came out of Africa some 100,000 or so years ago, it's clear that some parts of the Earth have produced bodies particularly suited for certain disciplines. Those of West African descent dominate sprinting, East Africans distance running, and Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans throwing events like the discus, javelin, hammer and shot put.

No doubt these are the results of culture, habitat, climate and countless other factors interacting over centuries. But on a simplistic level, is it far-fetched to suppose that yam-eating West Africans became fast by chasing down antelopes and outrunning lions on low-level plains? Or that milk-drinking East African hill nomads developed stamina to keep up with herds over long distances at high altitudes? Or that war-loving, meat-eating Vikings from snowy climes came to excel at throwing spears and heavy objects at enemies?

Infinite malleability

Far from being proof of inherent genetic capabilities, all this argues for the infinite malleability of human beings. Over time we adjust to every situation. Could their slaughtered victims ever have dreamt that bloodthirsty Vikings would over a few centuries morph into peace-loving Swedes and Danes? Only the historically ignorant believe in permanent racial characteristics.

But enough rambling. In the end the Olympics is a chance to see your own compete against the globe. We Jamaicans are lucky that, despite our minuscule size, we can actually hope to beat the world in the most glamorous events of all, the track and field sprints.

The gods will decide what happens, of course. My ideal results would be for Asafa and Usain to go one two in that order in the men's 100, for Usain to take the men's 200, and for Keron, Sherone, Shelley-Anne, Veronica, Melanie and Rosemarie to win medals in every race they compete in.

It's unlikely all the chips will fall our way, but far from impossible. With luck we might even sweep the men's and women's 100 and 200 metres and 4x100 relays, something only ever done by the 100-times our population size USA. And if Usain Bolt wins the men's 100 and 200, he will join the ranks of Jesse Owens, Tommy Smith and Carl Lewis.

No more remarkable

Yet, in the long march of time, who wins or loses any race or game means nothing really. A World Cup football final has no more intrinsic significance than a schoolyard game of jacks - win some, lose some. While, from a statistical point of view, being the world's fastest man is no more remarkable than being the world's fattest one.

Yes, we're elated when our countrymen win, and sad when they lose. And in today's commercial world, victors get much bigger bucks than the defeated. But those hundredths of seconds separating first and second eventually fade into nothingness. The ancient Olympics crowned thousands of laureates. Today we remember only a handful of names, who are just that and no more. What care we today of the once legendary Diagoras of Rhodes, Milo of Croton and Theagenes of Thasos?

So, old-fashioned though it may be, I still believe it's the spirit of the game that counts. What makes me truly proud is how humble our athletes are. You never hear our guys or girls babbling nonsense about being the greatest or wanting to crush opponents. They stay friends with all, and just do their best. 'Don't boast when you win and don't complain when you lose' is the true Olympian ideal. Let's hope it will always be the Jamaican way, too.

Comments (0)

Post a Comment
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
(not publicly displayed)
Reply Notification:
Approval Notification:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image:
* Message: