Featured: Top of Home Page

Olympic Addiction? Guilty as Charged

Collins appeals to the Pope for forgiveness of his Olympics addiction -- human rights issues be damned.

Dear Pope Benedict

Let me say right at the beginning that I’m not Catholic. But I’ve been so wracked with guilt for the past few days I didn’t know who else to turn to. I figured you’d be the expert on the subject: Catholic guilt, and so on.

So forgive me Benny, for I have sinned.

I tried resisting. I really tried. But once it had its claws in me I was powerless to say no. I can’t stop watching the Olympic Games. And the more I watch, the more it casts its spell over me.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. I’ve spent the last two years reading about the build up to Beijing 2008 and cursing the Olympic organisers for awarding China the Games to begin with. I know about their brutal repression in Tibet, their refusal to act on the genocide in Darfur, their destruction of the environment and their shocking human rights record at home that’s gone from bad to worse in the build up to the Games. You’re the expert, but I’m guessing the Big Guy already has special plans for the Chinese leadership when they’re waiting at the Pearly Gates.

But I wasn’t in favour of countries boycotting the Olympics, you understand. For a start, athletic non-attendance is a feeble form of political protest. And once you begin boycotting competing countries on non-sporting grounds, where does it end? Would countries refuse to compete against Great Britain and the USA because of the invasion of Iraq? What about countries that support or are hostile to Israel, or countries that don’t give equal rights to women or homosexuals? I don’t think anyone’s impressed by Japan’s whaling obsession. Or Canada’s seal cull bloodbath. Or Brazil’s destruction of its own rainforest. Boycotts have a nasty habit of spawning counter boycotts too, so unless we want international sport to be reduced to New Zealand and Sweden going toe-to-toe, we’ll have to bite the bullet.

Granted, minor moral points were made and some guilt was alleviated when Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Angela Merkel declined the invitation to the Opening Ceremony. Although I guess not wanting to be seen sitting next to President Bush is a sound political move for anyone seeking re-election. I was planning on giving the Opening Ceremony a wide berth myself. But I was weak. All it took was 2008 drummers with luminous sticks banging away in total darkness to suck me in. Yes, I know it’s a repressive dictatorship, but they put on such fabulous shows.

My fingers were crossed in the hope that some competitors would assuage my guilt by making some subtle form of protest. As I write this, I’m still waiting. Before the Games' 40 leading track and field athletes handed in a letter condemning China’s Human Rights record. According to Amnesty International many of those athletes withdrew their support before arriving in China. I’m sure many of them are dealing with guilt issues of their own.

“Such retractions take place against a general backdrop of fear in terms of freedom of expression and censorship surrounding the Beijing Olympic Games,” stated Amnesty International. “They also further highlight the failure of the International Olympic Committee to show clear moral leadership ahead of the Games. Athletes should feel free to express their personal opinions on human rights without fear or favour.”

You grew up in Nazi Germany, Benny. You were even in the Hitler Youth for a while, so I’m sure you understand a thing or two about how tough it is to speak out against repression when you’re in the belly of the beast. But everyone competing in Beijing is in a privileged position. And although I understand that there must be major political pressure for morally outraged athletes to keep their mouths shut, I’m sure I’d feel a lot better if even one of them stuck it to The Man, Tommie Smith style.

“It is remarkable that we want to say athletes should shut up and just play,” said likeable ex-NBA player John Amaechi, who’s combining his roll as Olympic Ambassador for Amnesty International with a day job as basketball commentator for the BBC. “In everyday context they (athletes) are good enough to tell us what cereals to eat, what shoes to wear, about anti-obesity or whatever, but when it comes to a fundamental tenet of human rights, somehow they are not good enough. If we want them to be holistic role models, then let’s let them be holistic role models. The legacy of most elite athletes is to be completely vanilla. I played basketball for many years and the idea that my legacy to this world is putting a ball in a hole is unsatisfactory to me.”

I’m with Amaechi 100 percent. And the sense that somehow Beijing’s lingering issues have been temporarily brushed under the carpet in the name of sport has left a bitter taste in my mouth. Yet I’m still entranced by these Olympics.

Perhaps the TV coverage has something to do with it. Thanks to the advent of digital TV technology, I can flick between up to six live channels of BBC sports coverage at a time. You’re the theologian, but I’m pretty sure that’s what TV in heaven is like.

But watching the Olympics is more than a non-stop intravenous sports drip. It’s not about Kobe Bryant or Roger Federer or Ronaldinho or Carlos Sastre taking time out from their lucrative day jobs to represent their country for a few days, either.

The Olympics entrance me for the competitors that don’t tell us what cereals to eat or what shoes to wear. Every time I watch these weightlifters and rowers and archers and gymnasts and boxers and, er, judo-ers I’m acutely aware that I’m watching the defining moments in these men and women’s lives. Everything they do from that moment on will be coloured by their success or failure in that one instant. Whether they took gold and glory, failed heroically, or screwed their chance up spectacularly, that’s what will define them for the rest of their lives. Their subsequent fame or anonymity will boil down to one burst of focused energy and concentration.

No one will ever want to talk about their views on human rights or their kids or what books they’ve read recently. They’ll want to discuss what it was like being an Olympian. Athletes may be representing their country but far more than that, the Olympic stage repeatedly provides the setting for deeply affecting personal drama.

Of course, these dramas that can be over in seconds take years of mind-spinning hard work to prepare for. Which is why I can’t help but give them the respect their sacrifice deserves by watching as much of these Games as humanly possible. It’s not the athletes' fault that the International Olympic Committee chose to hold the games in Beijing. So if my willingness to look past that decision makes me a bad person, well, you better write back detailing how many Hail Marys I owe you.

Here’s one last theological question for you, though. One you’ve probably heard a billion times already. Is it a sin to wish defeat on the US men’s basketball team? If so, I, like the rest of the world outside the 50 states, am utterly guilty. I know it’ll take a miracle to stop them from taking gold, but if you could have a word with your boss and find a way to wipe those smiles off Krzyzewski and Dubya’s smug faces, that would be hugely appreciated.

Yours truly,

Robert Collins





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.