A Parade of Weird Little Worlds: Why I Like The Olympics

Olympic Rings

Ingrid and I are not, generally speaking, sports fans. To put it mildly. (I had a brief stretch of fairly serious baseball fandom in the late '80s and early '90s, but I fell out of the habit in the strike of '94, and never got back into it.)

And yet, we are getting completely sucked into the Olympics.

I've been thinking about why.

Yes, we're watching the gymnastics and a couple of the other big-ticket events (diving is always a good time). And yes, I'm watching women's wrestling, for reasons that should be obvious. But mostly I'm being a big old dilettante, and am watching bits and pieces of the largely unsung sports.

Archery. Fencing. Badminton. Table tennis. Synchronized swimming and trampoline are coming up later this week, and I can't wait.

I'm having a ball with this.

Some of it is that it's always a good time to watch people doing something — anything at all — really, really well. The look of pure concentration on a person's face when they're deeply immersed in something they passionately love and are extraordinarily good at… it's one of the most beautiful sights there is.

And, of course, some of it is the two-week parade of beautiful athletic bodies in tight, skimpy outfits. My libidinal interest varies from sport to sport (sky-high for divers and female wrestlers, almost nil for weightlifters and female gymnasts), but I can't be the only erotic connoisseur/ drooling pervert who's getting off on this.

But most of it is this:


One of the things I love best about human beings is the way we create these weird little worlds for ourselves. The world of competitive ballroom dancing. Of model train building. Of comic book enthusiasts. Show dog owners. Historical recreation societies. Contra dancing. Atheist blogging. These worlds always call to mind for me a line from Dave Barry: "There's a fine line between a hobby and mental illness." Yet at the same time, they call to mind that line from the teenage kid from "Trekkies": "People tell me to get a life. Well, I have a life. This is a hobby. And having hobbies is part of having a life."

There are anthropologists and neurologists and evolutionary biologists who think that the human brain evolved to deal with about 100 or 150 other people, tops, and I'm convinced that the forming of these weird little worlds is a way of narrowing down the dauntingly enormous and increasingly interconnected global village into something a bit more manageable.

I love that each of these weird little worlds has not just its own skills and trends and passions, but its own gossip, its own politics, its own scandals and controversies. I love how immersed people get in our weird little worlds: how the issues of historically accurate shoes at Civil War re-enactments, or gender- balancing at contra dances, can seem like life or death. I love how much time and care and passion people put into these endeavors that will never make them famous or rich or remembered in the larger world, the world outside of a handful of equally demented enthusiasts.

Bare necessities

And I love that these worlds have stars and celebrities that nobody on the outside has ever, ever heard of. If you don't do English country dancing, you've almost certainly never heard of Bare Necessities: and yet they are a band with a rabidly devoted following, across the country and around the world. And when Ingrid and I met PZ Myers on a recent visit he made to the Bay Area, we told all our friends about it with bubbly excitement… to be met with almost universal blank stares. (Stares that got even blanker when we explained that he was "a famous biologist and atheist blogger.")

As thousands of pundits have noted before me, the world is becoming ickily homogenous, filled with depressingly interchangeable supermarkets and strip malls, processed foods and chain restaurants. But the weird little worlds of hobbyists and enthusiasts are a bulwark against that tendency. Whenever I despair over humanity losing its quirkiness, all I have to do is read the Carnival of the Godless, or go queer contra dancing, or turn on "Project Runway" and watch the contestants pissing themselves with excitement over some fashion designer I've never heard of.

And what I love about the Olympics is that, for two weeks every four years, I get a peek inside a dozen or so of these worlds.


I love finding out what the strategy is in weightlifting (yes, there's strategy — I know, it was news to me as well), and that it's forbidden in Olympic weightlifting to lubricate your thighs. I love learning that a round of play in archery is called an "end." I love discovering the existence of a triathlon-style sport that combines running, swimming, fencing, shooting, and equestrian… and learning that it was invented as a narrative of a soldier ordered to deliver a message on horseback.

And I love how intensely immersed the athletes are in their worlds, how hard they work to become so superbly good in them with so little in the way of obvious payoff.

I mean, it's easy to understand why you'd want to be a famous gymnast or a multi- medal- winning swimmer. If you succeed, you actually get a fair degree of fame and fortune in the larger world. But if you sacrifice years of your life to become the absolute top of your game in archery or fencing or badminton, nobody is ever going to know about it but your immediate circle of family and friends, a handful of other archers and fencers and badmintonites… and every four years, some weirdos like me, who could care less about Michael Phelps's eight gold medals but get intensely sucked into the women's saber competition for about fifteen minutes.

I love that they do it anyway.

(P.S. Tivo helps with this a lot, btw. I can't believe I ever watched the Olympics without it. Tivo lets you watch all the weird events you want to watch… and skip the ones you think are boring.)

Ballroom dance photo by Petr Novak, Wikipedia.

A Parade of Weird Little Worlds: Why I Like The Olympics
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12 thoughts on “A Parade of Weird Little Worlds: Why I Like The Olympics

  1. Ola

    There is one word that you used throughout this post, Greta, which I think is incorrect: “little”. You kept saying “weird little worlds”, contrasting them with “the large world” – it sounded a bit like “oh, look at these cute little fishes in the small puddle near the shore of a great lake, not knowing the difference”. And this is just untrue. First of all, the worlds you mentioned are not in any way little. A scientist working on, say, DEC-POMDP’s – decentralized partially observable Markov decision processes (a sub-sub-sub-sub field of AI) – is not “living in his weird little world”. Neither is a chess player, or a soccer player. Their respective worlds are, in fact, unbelievably rich. These are not hobbies. “Hobby” is not a good word for it. It’s their work. It’s what they do. You could spend an entire life delving into the ever-evolving subtleties of each of these fields, and there always will be much more left to learn.
    Also, if you ever say to a champion fencer “Don’t you want to be famous?”, she will have a hard time understanding what you mean. She is famous. Both she and the champion tennis player are very famous among the people who care for their field, and that’s the only fame they both care about, anyway – if they care about fame at all. If you say to her “but how many people care about fencing?!” she will be very surprised – chances are that, in fact, the vast majority of all the people she knows care very deeply about fencing. People gather in societies around their interests (and this is something that became much easier to do in the Internet era). You seem to measure each world by a single parameter – the absolute number of people involved in it. And this is an extremely narrow way to look at it.
    Finally, there is just no such thing as “the large world”. There’s no such creature. It doesn’t exist. I dare you to name one field which will be of interest to the majority of people on the planet – I don’t think you could do it. The human endeavor consists of a huge multitude of interconnected worlds – some shared by many, some by few, some more isolated than others. All people live in “weird little worlds”.

  2. 3

    My response to the summer Olympics broadcast is usually “meh.” But the other day I was ironing and, desperate for some sort of visual stimulation, I found myself completely sucked in by the women’s doubles table tennis final. I have never in my life watched a game of table tennis from start to finish, and I may never do it again. But for those few moments, my little world was their little world. Undeniably, there is something about watching a masterful competition, no matter what the activity.

  3. 4

    The thing that distresses me about the Olympics — and the reason I think they’re something much more sinister than just the weird little hobby that some deeply motivated athletes — is the fact that they’re being presented as the moral equivalent of war. This isn’t the fault of the athletes themselves; they’re clearly in this for the thrill of high-level personal achievement. But the broader event isn’t about that any more, if it ever was. This is not a celebration of human athletic achievement; it’s an opportunity for the USA to show that it’s better than China, and vice versa, and same deal as to all the other countries that are participating. It’s countries bragging about how much better they are than other countries.
    If it were about individual achievement, they wouldn’t have the convention of playing the gold medal winner’s national anthem at the award ceremony. If it were about individual achievement, I wouldn’t be able to go to allegedly progressive web sites like Huffington Post and see nice little breakdowns of how many medals the USA has won versus how many China and Russia have won. If it were about individual achievement, the press wouldn’t be getting all breathless about some athletic competition in which the two people favored to win happen to be Russian and Georgian. If it were about individual athletes competing to see who’s best at archery or badminton or synchronized swimming, it wouldn’t matter what country they’re from; that would be kind of an interesting little bit biographical tidbit, sort of like what they eat for breakfast and whether they get to their training sessions by bicycle or by car.
    But that’s not how it is, is it? The press never ever ever even so much as mentions an athlete without identifying his country of origin: it’s always “China’s hurdle hero Liu Xiang” and “Romania’s Sandra Izbasa” (to quote two examples chosen at random from Huffington Post.) It’s all about “the USA has 63 medals and China has 61, so we’re beating them, but we’re all very nervous about their superiority in table tennis, which could put them over the top and then they’d win and we’d lose.” It’s all about countries winning and losing some sort of weird proxy struggle with other countries.
    Sure, I could forget about all that stuff and just appreciate the amazing skills and well-toned muscles. I could watch TV images of the war in Iraq and just appreciate the efforts our brave men and women in uniform are making without thinking about the broader implications, too; God knows there are enough people with “Support the Troops” magnetic stickies on their cars who would urge me to do that. But somehow, it’s hard for me to forget that this is all about “we’re better than you because we have more medals, nyah nyah nyah” when I can’t watch more than five seconds of Olympic coverage without seeing images of national flags.

  4. cm

    i’m into the volleyball players, softball players and yes the divers!….the sprinter who won 100m from jamaica was super gorgeous…i haven’t seen womens wrestling yet but i’m on the lookout!

  5. 7

    Ola, I think you misinterpreted my intent. I think you think I was being condescending with the phrase “weird little worlds,” and I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the weird little worlds I discussed in this piece are ones I participate in myself, both personally and professionally. And I completely agree with you that these worlds are very rich and valuable. That was, in fact, a large part of my point.
    I do think there’s a significant difference between being famous in the world of fencing and being famous in the world of, say, pro basketball or pop music. The number of people who follow fencing, and the number of people who follow pro basketball or “American Idol,” is radically different, by several orders of magnitude. These weird little worlds are smaller, in that they don’t affect nearly as many people.
    But I don’t think that makes them trivial or uninteresting. Quite the contrary. I find this tendency — the tendency of people to become deeply and obsessively absorbed in their interests, regardless of whether the world at large shares them — to be not only fascinating and beautiful, but one of the things that makes us most human, and an important bulwark against the increasing tide of homogenization in our culture. I’m not measuring human worlds solely by how many people are involved in them. That was, in fact, the whole point of my piece.

  6. 8

    Jon: I don’t actually disagree with you. I could easily have written an entire piece about the things that annoy me about the Olypmics and the media coverage thereof, and the nationalism you wrote about is only one of them. (Don’t get me started on the “We’re going to watch the U.S. gymnastics team stand around scratching their butts and waiting for their turn while other athletes are actually doing stuff” TV coverage. I could rant all week.)
    But I’m sort of doing this thing where I make a conscious effort to at least occasionally write about things that I like, as well as things that tick me off. And I decided to do that with this piece. If the nationalism of the Olympics bugs you to the point where you find it unwatchable, I certainly get that. I just don’t feel that way. I find it an acceptable annoyance.

  7. 9

    I completely enjoyed reading this, Greta. You always have interesting things to say and wonderful ways of saying that but for some reason I just really came alive reading this today (over on Alternet–I had an urge to indulge in dirt).
    I really enjoyed the play between eroticism and athleticism and the weirdness of smaller worlds in all of this that you invoked. I’m straight and take a lot of crap from female friends for noticing female athletes (ugh, so typical of me, pfeh) but no one knows how much I also and equally admire the male athletes, especially the paddler guys. When I was younger I raced kayaks too and it brings back lots of memories. Weird little worlds… I so get that. I think the only “universal” human sport affinity is football (soccer). And yeah, I think we as a species do relate to and are composed within lots of little worlds. I love the boundary crossings, the exploration of other worlds that I’m less familiar with. It’s exciting when a fellow explorer shares that joy of crossing boundaries too.
    One of the things I really enjoyed was the Bronze medal win in the men’s K-1 by Benjamin Boukpeti. The pure joy and innocence in his reaction to the win, he might as well have won the most prestigious gold medal ever. It was infectious! But watching his run was what made that joyful response so gorgeous. Sure the German guy was faster, but Ben was g-o-r-g-e-o-u-s in the water, powerful, masterful, adapative, was so “one” with the water it was like watching mercury in the middle of a rave party with bizarre and exciting lighting FX. His face was so expressive, his arms so powerful and yet fluid and peaceful, boat and body all one unified being, his hands! His hands are simply breathtaking to look at. It was simply the best “Olympic moment” for me.

  8. 10

    Hi there. I saw your blog via someone else’s link citing bits of your blog, so I had to come read the rest of the article. 🙂
    While I do agree with most of your article about being absorbed into “little” worlds, I do think you’ve missed one particular point.
    You write: >>But if you sacrifice years of your life to become the absolute top of your game in archery or fencing or badminton, nobody is ever going to know about it but your immediate circle of family and friends, a handful of other archers and fencers and badmintonites…<<
    Of all of the serious athletes I know (including myself), none of them (even the gymnasts & swimmers going for the Olympic team) didn't care one whit about the commercial fame and fortune (although, it was a side beneft, mostly to pay for the amount of $$ you already put into the sport).
    I'm not saying that there aren't those who do it for fame & fortune, but I think they are the minority.
    But, for the majority, they did it for the absolute love of the sport, and they don't care if anyone else (even family & friends) know about it. I know when I meet people for the first time, it's not something I talk about, unless specifically asked. I mean, it's not all glamorous. There's daily practice, there are injuries, there are competitions where you never even medalled.
    And, it's not something that everyone understands, either. Daily practice for 4-8 hours a day is standard and something we don't think about. We miss out on get togethers with friends during the week because of practice or on the weekends due to competitions. How can people who sit in chairs armed with the remote every single night understand that type of thing?
    It becomes part of your core identity. It's how you help identify yourself. And you do it for the absolute love of the sport (and hate — and there is often a love-hate relationship with your sport). After a while, it's something you cannot NOT do.
    And, within the Olympics (setting aside the politics for a second….) it's really about proving that you are the best not only to your peers, but to yourself. It's the ability to walk down the street just *knowing* you are the best at XYZ.
    Frankly, everyone else can go to take a flying leap.
    Jade, who has seriously trained in Foil Fencing for about 15+ years. I tried for the Olympics but never made it. However, I still continue to fence because it's something I can't ever give up.

  9. 12

    I love the Olympics. It’s something I look forward to every 4 years. I am unabashed about it and purposefully so. I love all the different sports. I see it more as a commonality between people from all these different countries. I mean the archers from all over the world have this shared experience with each other that they don’t even come close to sharing with their neighbors. I am a big fan of sports and using your body. At the extreme end you have the dumb jock. But sometimes I need the reminder that we are physical animals like all the other animals on the planet it gets me out of my head. I know there are some people who view it as a competition amongst different countries. But that’s not what I care about. And I am a sucker for all the backstory and emotion and what went into it all (although the story about the love triangle with the French and Italian women swimmers was stupid).

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