The 2012 Olympics and Paralympics ended this week with a giant parade through London, where I fled to recover from back-to-back political conventions in the U.S. There are similarities between these domestic and international spectacles.
Truth is, the Olympic Games have never done much for me. In fact, I find them a bit sinister: the strident nationalism; the elevation of victory in a sports competition to the level of something terribly important; the constant insistence that they really are important; the talented young kids who are encouraged to put childhood aside in order to spend four or 12 or 50 hours a day honing their talents, most of them destined for disappointment; the corporate sponsorship that gets more oppressive every four years; the hectoring theme music
(OK, so I’m a pompous, bloodless, soulless, un-American jerk. Those superb young people pouring heart and soul into throwing the beach ball just one inch farther, or whatever, deserve better than mockery from the likes of etc., etc., etc. Fine. Point taken. Can we move on now? Thank you.)
The Olympics are a perfect example of what you might call “gratuitous meritocracy.” The rewarding of extreme industry and talent is both inevitable in all human societies and specifically necessary to the proper functioning of free-market capitalism.
But capitalism doesn’t depend on an elaborate process for anointing the world’s greatest javelin thrower — cruelly crushing the hopes of half a dozen or so for every one who gets a medal. Nor are the Olympics inevitable. We did without them from ancient times until 1896. They are a contest someone dreamed up so that nations and individuals can feel superior to one another.
This year in London, however, something unexpected
happened. In recent decades the Olympics have been followed in
the host city by the Paralympics, in which all competitors are,
in the delicate words of the International Paralympic Committee,
“people with an impairment.” The roots of these kinds of
sporting events are pretty shallow. The Paralympics date to
1960, while groups like the Society of One-Armed Golfers
(founded in 1932) and events like the “Deaflympics” (first held
in 1924) are slightly older.
Yet this year the Paralympics had a breakthrough, at least
in the U.K. Partly this is because Britons are soft-hearted
suckers for a good “triumph over adversity” story. As the
Guardian, the U.K.’s left-wing establishment newspaper,
editorialized: “At the risk of using up the entire annual quota
of Guardian editorial schmaltz in one go, this past month it
feels as if most of us have been (as Boris Johnson would have
it) cropdusted with serotonin, the happiness hormone.”
Brits also felt that the whole Olympics package, but
especially the Paralympics, put them in a pretty good light.
Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put it this way: “We
looked in the mirror and were met by an unexpected reflection —
one we rather liked.” For the hangdog end-of-empire British,
this is novel and refreshing.
But the main reason the Paralympics took off is that they
were apparently just so exciting. If you think watching a bunch
of men running a footrace is a thrill, imagine watching them run
For once, the excruciatingly defensive and politically
correct label, “differently abled,” was completely accurate and
appropriate. Olympic athletes can do things that Paralympic
athletes can’t, but Paralympic athletes can do things that
Olympics athletes can’t. (The Paralympics also demonstrate the
arbitrariness of the definition of a sport, thus undermining the
logic of the whole enterprise.)
I say “apparently” because I didn’t actually see this
year’s Olympics or Paralympics. As I said, I was otherwise
The Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, like the
Olympics, was all about winners, about the care and feeding of
successful people. Getting the smartest, hardest-working people
— the alphas — to employ their talents is the most important
thing a leader must do.
By contrast, the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North
Carolina, like the Paralympics, was about inclusiveness. With a
bit of help (a student loan, secure health care, a small tax
cut), millions more people can join the great American middle
class. A small change in the rules can make a disabled athlete
equal or superior to an “abled” one.
Doubling the infinitesimal number of super-athletes who
enjoy fame and riches won’t really make for a more equal
society. It will just redistribute the inequality a bit.
Is it a fairer society when a few more people are eligible
for the baubles of success? Well, maybe it is. But it is the
Democrats, with their emphasis on inclusion and their
determination to ask for a bit more from the folks who have
those baubles — even if they have earned them — who have the
more profound version of fairness.
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