Compete, don’t kill

By Ilana Mercer

Comedian Lily Tomlin once said that “98 percent of the adults in this country are decent, hard-working, honest Americans. It’s the other lousy 2 percent that get all the publicity. But then – we elected them.”

This lousy minority is the inescapable obsession of the weekly columnist. Since American society is silhouetted by the state, dissecting the news amounts to documenting the deeds of the state. It’s impossible to switch on televised news without getting an earful of, “Bush did this; Bush did that,” day in and day out, to the exclusion of worthier newsmakers. Leafing through the newspaper affords a similar experience.

But turn on Canada’s national public broadcaster (CBC) – the PBS of Canada – or any of the commercial Canuck channels, and one is far more likely to catch a segment on the opera or the ballet than if one flips between the government genuflectors on MSNBC or Fox. Never did I imagine I’d be praising socialist Canada for being less preoccupied with parasitic power than America, but there you have it: Canada’s potentates are not as omnipresent in the lives of their “subjects” as ours appear to be.

If American news deigns to cover entrepreneurs, it is to show them being frog-marched into police cruisers. From the perp walk, the camera will then zoom in on The Leader (or on his ideologically indistinguishable twin, Kerry) as he promises to unleash the Wrath of his God on the likes of Martha Stewart and Sam Waksal. Those who wreak war and wreck economies are jailing individuals who create jobs or devise cures for cancer.

Its political structure notwithstanding, the Olympics is the kind of event that looms sufficiently large – for two weeks every two years – to shunt the kleptocracy to the sidelines, revealing it as the freak show it truly is.

The eager young faces, the lithe, lean bodies, the unabashed pursuit of victory (even the Canadians, well-indoctrinated about the evils of competitiveness, couldn’t suppress cries of “merde” and “crap” when they lost a swimming relay), the brutal regimen required to become the best, the irrepressible spirit that compels athletes to submit to the grueling grind. It is all so very exhilarating – no “shock and awe,” just awe. Some cheat to achieve an unnatural advantage over their adversaries, but for the most part, the Olympics are an expression of unadulterated merit – a concept that has been degraded beyond rehabilitation in almost all other human endeavor.

The acme of athletic achievement, expressed in the immutable truths of speed, strength and skill, is uncontested. The charmed men and women gracing the podiums of modern Olympia are there for no other reason than that they are the finest in their fields. What greater contrast can there be between the Olympian, who powers himself to the pinnacle, and the politician, who drapes himself in the noble toga of idealism, in the famous words of Aldous Huxley, so as to conceal his will to power.

On Tuesday, it was as though the state and its hobgoblins – meant to keep everyone scared and subservient – had drowned in the swimming pool of Athens. Left to forge ahead undisturbed were the fabulous Michael Phelps, Klete Keller, Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay – the Americans who won the 800-meter freestyle relay.

And how good to watch the imposing Australian Ian Thor(pedo), having received the gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle, embrace in camaraderie the silver medalist (Pieter van den Hoogenband, Holland) and the bronze medalist (Michael Phelps, USA). For once, not a word was heard of that other (dishonorable) coalition “of the willing” their governments had embroiled them in.

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova – what a fine sportswoman – was back at age 47 (mercifully, John McEnroe has confined his comeback to a TV talk show almost as lurid as his language on the court), playing doubles for her adopted country, the United States. Given a choice to watch such splendor, who in their right mind would choose the unlovely Cheney?

Yes, there is at least one disgraceful American act at the Olympics – a display that flouts the spirit of the games and is a cause for yet more international shame: the U.S. men’s basketball team. (Small mercy: There are no alleged rapists among the players.) However, basketball fans at home are embarrassed by, and disown, this team. I only hope that our sprinters handle themselves with dignity during the high point of the competition: the American-dominated, testosterone-fueled, always magnificent, 100-meter men’s dash (forget it ladies: You are not in this league).

The cable networks tried their hand at some crossover promotion by getting soldiers stationed in Iraq to send televised messages to athletes in Athens. “Win for me” was one audacious request. But no one in Athens was listening. The rosy, sweet-smiling face of swimmer Natalie Coughlin, resplendent in victory, said it all. America is in Greece to do what it does best – compete, not kill.