Olympic Musings…

As the summer Olympics in Beijing draw to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect on the goings-on of past few weeks. The big news (other than the Herculean feats of Michael Phelps and others), as reported by the people who determine what makes the news, seems to be that people actually watched, and in record numbers.

Being on vacation afforded my wife and me the chance to watch more than we would have otherwise, and I am obliged to admit that much of it was compelling. The gymnastics competition, male and female, showcased athletes performing at the peak of their abilities, and one could only gape in amazement at what they were able to do (no matter how old or young they are). In swimming and track and field, previous world records seemed significant only as markers for what used to be the “gold standard” in any particular event. Records were rewritten just about every day, sometimes by significant amounts. To use an overused word, it was awesome.

Two random observations on the games, one amusing, one definitely not so.

To begin with the innocuous, I take you back to the women’s floor exercises in the gymnastics competition. To this layperson’s eye, the floor exercise looks like a series of dance postures and moves punctuated by tumbling sequences that send the competitors flying through the air, expected to land without a twitch. And it’s all set to music, which in some way is supposed to relate to the moves on the floor.

I wonder if some of you caught this moment. One of the competitors from the former Soviet Union- I think it was a Russian woman- performed her floor exercise to a techno-version of the theme from Exodus. Actually, I think more than one woman used the Exodus music. The irony was too delicious for words. I’ve heard that Paul Newman is quite ill these days; I hope he was watching. Ari Ben-Canaan would have enjoyed knowing that gymnasts from the homeland of “Let my people go!” were finding inspiration from music whose Zionist lyrics proclaimed, “Until I die, this land is mine!”

From the innocuous to the surreal:

I think I remember reading before the Olympics that the Chinese government was prepared to issue permits to those who wished to protest during the games. Did you see any protests? I didn’t. On the front page of today’s New York Times (8/21) there’s an article about an elderly Chinese couple being sent for “re-education” for having asked for a permit.

The Chinese succeeded in sanitizing these games, and NBC played along.

There were features on Beijing nightlife, where to eat, where to buy the best silk, and on and on. But I don’t recall seeing anything more than the most cursory mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the repressive nature of the Chinese government (for all of its capitalist tendencies).

People commented on how, contrary to pre-Olympics concerns, the air quality in Beijing was the best it had been in ten years. Amazing. That’s what happens when you shut down all your factories within a suitable distance from the city. They hid the pollution, they hid the poor people who live in Beijing and eke out a living hawking merchandise from their little wagons, they hid the protestors…. And the result, of course, is that Beijing seemed like a summer wonderland.

I’m told they hid the anti-Semitic propaganda in Berlin in 1936, too- not to mention the Jews.

China is not Nazi Germany, but it’s certainly not Disneyland either. Amidst our celebration of our athletes and their noble competitors, we owe the victims of Tiananmen Square to at least remember them.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.