It is 3pm on Friday, and I can’t wait to get home and watch the Hunger Games.
I mean, the Olympics.
It isn’t my fault. I never planned to spend my sabbatical reading teen lit books; and I certainly would not have intentionally finished Mockingjay just as the Olympics kicked off.
Except that i would, and I did. And now i cannot watch a single moment of it without making parallels between Katniss and Gabby. Between that Ceasar guy and–dear lord–Ryan Seacrest. He, and all the other commentators who seem honed in more on human interest and hair do’s than on the actual sporting events.
It goes something like this: everything is on a tape-delay so that the best bits of drama, triumph, and heartbreak can air on prime time back in the districts. The camera focuses in–and i mean, focuses, like, you can see up the girl’s nostrils–on a devastated Jordyn Wieber. As the reigning world champion realizes she will not be competing for an individual gold, the cameras go cruelly close for a painfully long bit of time. “Oh, just look at that heartbreak on her face, you can just see it, it is just devastating, this is how good the U.S. is folks, you can be the best in the world, and still not be the best on your team. Just look at the pain on that face, just imagine the disappointment she must be feeling, and did we mention heartbreak? ”
The tears just keep coming. Why is her sponsor not sending down a hanky in a silver parachute? Later in the evening, we see her image projected in the sky, as an anthem plays in the background for the fallen tributes.
Pan over to the swimming venue, where returning tribute Michael Phelps tanks in the first race of the games. Is it cruel, on the part of the Capitol, to put a reigning champion back in the arena? I mean, he’s survived the chaos of returning home a champion. He’s adjusted to life in the Victor’s Village, the fame, the changed relationships… What is next for him in this Quarter Quell?
We skip back over to the beach volley ball pit, and the women’s gymanstics…We overhear the commentators talking almost compulsively about post-baby bodies, costumes, bikinis, and up-do’s. Tsk tsk on the messy buns and pony tails, girls. Where’s Cinna when you need him?
The Career Tribute–I mean Gabby–wins the Games, and the crowd goes berserk. An ecstatic nation is in tears, on its feet, proud and inspired. She becomes the symbol of all our greatest hopes for the future, the very embodiment of our shared strength, and the picture of what triumph can come from freedom, hard work, and opportunity.
A Mockingjay is born.
The network feeds us human interest pieces at every turn. They give us a thread of shared narrative and sell us–at home, on the couch, maybe eating ice cream– on the idea that these incredible athletes somehow belong to us. We made them. We own them. We hunger for them. And yeah, we kind of want to see them bloody up the field with the rest of the world. We’ve sent them as tributes to represent us. We want to see them win…or die trying.
OK, i’m exaggerating. I love the Olympics. I love hearing the Star Spangled Banner play and watching a joyful tribute–i mean, athlete–receive a medal. I cannot imagine the sacrifice, the pain, and the discipline that move a person into that moment.And yet, sometimes we can get a little too close. As in, right up their noses. Right into their tears, their homesickness, their most heartbreaking moments. Whether live, on Twitter (more’s the pity, Lolo) or on taped delay for prime time, we are right up in their business, 24 hours a day. In short, we have made a product of these people.
It is worth pointing out that these are children. Not as in, they are somebody’s child, as we all are. In many cases, these athletes are actual minors. Kids. Not old enough to vote or buy alcohol. And we want to see them cry. We want to know who’s their girlfriend and where’s their mom (probably she’s busy making a P&G commercial) and how much they’re going to make if they win, and how broken are they going to be if they lose.
“Whoever wins all-around gold becomes the darling of America. That’s the queen of the Summer Olympics. That’s usually where one of the most marketable athletes from the Games emerges, especially with somebody like Gabby who’s really cute, very young and certainly has the potential to compete again in Rio.”
President Snow? Nope. Real live advertising guy. One of many who are at work, even as we speak, figuring out how to best package the medal winners so that they can be delivered to your door asap, once the Games are over. It will start with a cereal box. Later, there will be wristwatches.
These athletes are strong. They are, in many cases, excellent role models. There is joy and strength in their leaping, floating, flying, running, spiking, rowing, cycling, bodies. We want a piece of it all. But lest we forget…they are, every single one of them, whole people.
I wish somebody would tell such a thing to Aly Raisman’s mama. Goodness, but she is a nervous wreck. She will be needing a manicure (somebody call Cinna) after all that nail biting.
I also hope somebody told John Orozco when…ugh. You saw it. It was just bad. Heartbreaking. I can’t imagine overcoming all that he’s overcome, travelling all the way across the world for a chance to change your life–and that of your family–and then literally falling flat.
But still… Could they not just give him a minute? A moment before the canon went off, to grieve in peace? That’s what I was wishing for him, anyway. A voice–strong, steady and wise–to remind him that he is so much more than that moment of painful failure. I can only hope that such a person exists in his life.
Tonight, in prime time, the returning tributes–that Magnificent 7 from ’96– will share their stories. NBC will air footage of the epic Atlanta win. I, for one, cannot wait to see Kerri Strug get carried off that mat again. It was as moving a moment as I’ve ever seen on live television. Guts, glory, compassion, patriotism, team spirit, sacrifice, and yes, a human interest level. You name it, those Games had it all.
But I also hope we catch a glimpse of how very full and meaningful these athletes’ lives have been outside the arena, and off the mat. A reminder to us all that our celebrities are not really ours. They are whole people, fearfully and wonderfully made. Not created for our entertainment, not packaged for our consumption, and certainly not tributes sent to atone for the sins of a broken nation. They are beloved, extraordinary children of the living God. And so are we all.
So, i’m headed home to enjoy the games. I will enjoy the nostalgia of the 90’s. I will enjoy these brief, shining days when a divided country can rally round the flag together and celebrate.
For a moment, I will try and click over to women’s archery, and look for Katniss. Then I will remember that archery is not approved prime time viewing in the districts; and, of course, that Katniss is pretend. And these kids–our kids–are very, very real.
May the odds be ever in their favor.