Wednesday, August 20, 2008

America: The Beautiful

I know everyone is talking about Phelps and Bolt, but thus far, I have another image that has stuck with me from watching these Olympics, US gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin standing next to each other on the podium. A curious sight. Johnson, the compact, thick-thighed, sixteen year old sparkplug with the bunny-faced goofy smile and slightly dazed look in her eye, along side Liukin, the tall, lithe, elegant, cool blond, her gaze burning with arch competitiveness. Their respective parents couldn't have provided a more stark contrast too. Liukin's father/coach was a former Russian Olympic gold medalist himself. The consummate professional, he was on the floor with his daughter during competition, confident and supportive. Liukin's mother was usually nowhere to be found - she couldn't bear the tension of watching her daughter compete (except that she did attend the balance beam final, her daughter's last Olympic event.) Johnson's doughy bespectacled mid-western parents were in the stands the whole time, bubbling with energy, cheering their daughter on and looking utterly out of place, like they couldn't believe their aw-shucks good fortune to have such a marvelous kid who was doing such a wonderful job in front of the crowd. Their joy seemed not unlike the joy of parents watching their six year old playing a candy-cane in the school Christmas play.

Watching the contrast in their appearance and style, it suddenly dawned on me: This is quintessential America, a country whose citizens are per capita perhaps one of the most obese on earth but whose athlete representatives continue to win more medals than any other. They are fat, undisciplined and out of shape as citizens, but disciplined, trained and absolutely committed to achieving world supremacy as athletes. America embodies opposites. Both extreme discipline and extreme sloth, religious fanaticism and radical secularism, theism and atheism, sexuality and puritanism, moral conservatism and libertarianism. Only one thing unites them all, a commitment to freedom, diversity and possibility in the various permutations and combinations which may or may not lead to success. This, of course, is the exact antithesis of the host Chinese approach. When they are successful, the Chinese leave nothing to chance. Their triumph owes everything to authoritarianism, formula, strict regiment, homogeneity and control. Nothing, or as little as possible, is left to chance, hence the substitution of one girl's voice for another's appearance, and the digital manipulation of images at the opening ceremonies. Ironically, for a country that brought us Hollywood and plastic surgery, it is not America but the Chinese that seem fake, less real. America takes its chances, lets the chips fall where they may, and the result, sometimes, are Shawn and Nastia, as real and as different as they come, from both ends of possibility's spectrum.

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