The Olympics are here. I love the Olympics so I wrote about them in the only way I know how.
Sports, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy taught his students, illustrated a philosophy of time. The downhill skier thinks only about beating a time in the past while for the figure skater time stands still – performance in the moment is all that matters. The dramatic reversal of fortunes, the repetition of runs, events, drills, and opening ceremonies all illustrate a rich philosophy of time. Had the field of philosophy taken Rosenstock-Huessy seriously I suppose, philosophers would flock to the Olympic games. Global philosophy societies would be meeting along halfpipes and ice rinks as before them unfolded the clearest portrait of man’s relationship to time.
Alas, such a reality would make philosophy far more relevant and enjoyable than its current dreadful task of making more of language than the common man can understand. Perhaps the International Olympic Committee might make philosophy into a sport something akin to Monty Python’s vision.
Philosophers aside, the start of the Winter Olympics in PyeoungChang offers the chance to reflect upon the times. The Olympic games are a unique paradox of international cooperation and vigorous nationalism. In the Opening Ceremonies, countries enter the arena as equals hosted by a country that goes to great lengths and expense to demonstrate to the world their peculiarity. Furthermore, television coverage of the Olympics in the United States focuses nearly exclusively on the athletes from the United States while simultaneously celebrating the athleticism and skill of champions from any and all nations.
In a cultural moment dominated by the forces of Globalism vs. Nationalism, the paradoxical character of the Olympic games instructs us on a possible way forward. The forces of nationalism that have swept the West in the past few years reflect a popular dissatisfaction with the present global liberal order. Remember that one of the core doctrines of the liberal social order is that countries with liberal values of liberty, the dignity of the individual, and human rights could befriend each other without the risk of retaliation. Liberalism put all western powers on the same hockey team. Yet the coherence of this social order is also what has undergirded the fluidity which simultaneously destabilizes it. The freedom of mobility both socially and technologically helps maintain global order – indeed the world is more connected than ever in human history, but that order is only accessible to those with the means to access it. And while the bar of entry remains low in many places, the stratification and stultification of wealth threatens to exclude entry to those most vulnerable to the dramatic shifts made possible through technological advancement.
In response to the fluidity and resultant instability of the regular change that our current global order brings, nationalism arises from the desire to preserve and keep cultures intact, and from the throws of the vulnerable willing to rewrite history if only to preserve what they currently have. We want a history that serves our interests – the liberal bureaucrat and the alt-right supporter alike.
Yet if history teaches us anything it is that history does not obeisantly serve the demands of those who create it. Truth is stranger than fiction, and paradox more satisfactory a solution than picking sides. Hidden on the slopes of PyeongChang is a political philosophy that though impractical would be a bulwark against the corrosive effects of unrestrained globalism and irresponsible nationalism. It is the eminently reasonable approach of embracing both nationalism and globalism.
The Olympic Games are a delight to watch because they put on display the better angels of human cooperation and competition. Sport is common to humanity because play is common to humanity. The Olympics evoke the childlike delight for play. A child plays to learn, to enjoy, to develop in freedom. Sport exists because foursquare exists. Without the playground there would be no “play ball!” The Olympics show us that humans are children.
Yet at the same time it is particularity of peoples that make the Olympics interesting. Jamaica may be unable to field a competitive team in bobsled for the Winter Olympics but they can field the fastest man alive for the Summer Olympics. The United States, despite their overall Summer Olympic dominance still has yet to medal in Biathlon. Humans are all children but with different parents.
Consider an Olympics that reflected the extremes of pure Globalism and pure Nationalism. A “Global” Olympics might eliminate nations altogether choosing instead for all to compete under a number perhaps. But who then would anyone root for? Such a “Global Stage” would quickly cease to be a global stage and quickly become an inequality not to mention a bore. Perhaps people might rally around their favorite numbers or attempt to win the lottery on the reasonable basis of 253645’s win in the Women’s Figure Skating. This kind of event or rather this kind of world is based on the banal infinity that acknowledges no borders.
A national Olympics might resemble the original games but would fail to distinguish itself among the individual sports that command for airtime. A national Olympics already exists in America. It has one sport and is called by what one eats soup out of. And despite the popularity of said soup event, it still does not get the same attention or even viewership that the Olympics does.
America has much to offer the world and the world has much to offer America. For the center to hold in our public life must regain a loyalty to the paradox of global life and national life, of global participation and principled patriotism, of loyalty to country and commitment to the world. Of rooting for America and celebrating victories of other nations.
The lesson of the Olympic games is not that sports bring the world together nor that building fancy stadiums resolves world conflict. Rather the lesson of the Olympic games to a divided nation is also the hidden wisdom of Christianity.
Peace is found in paradox.