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Relax, it was just an opening ceremony, not a political statement

August 24, 2008

Something was missing from this Olympics, but for the longest time I couldn't figure out what it was. As sporting events go, they seemed somewhat antiseptic, like some staple of recreational activity had been surgically removed from the set. Some background noise, some sporting clutter was gone. A week into it, I figured out what was leaving me with that empty feeling:

Advertising.

I'm just not sure I can fully appreciate an athletic contest without a Mastercard logo superimposed on the playing field. There's no Aflac Olympic trivia question; no Verizon call to the bullpen; no Rolaids relief man; no changeable billboards on the walls; no Minute Maid Park; no omnipresent Volvo or Ford emblems; no "Heartbeat of China."

I don't know if this is an Olympic thing or a China thing. They call their stadium the Bird's Nest - we would call it the Bird's-Eye Frozen Vegetables Nest.

It also may be a bad thing for advertisers that it took me so long to notice. I've watched a few American professional baseball games this week and I know I was bombarded with advertising. But I can't for the life of me remember what any of those ads were for.

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Advertising has become so saturated that it all blends into one big pot of soup where no one ingredient stands out. But take it away, and it's like Linus loosing his blanket - it feels so foreign.

Of course anything foreign is scary to us. Several pundits were terrified by the opening ceremonies, where thousands of Chinese performed as one, with no one so much as a whisper out of step.

This was a symbol to them of an iron-fisted tyranny, where individuality is quashed and collective behavior is dictated. The ceremony was all one big allegory of evil.

Well, OK. But it was still kind of cool, I thought.

I suppose if your profession is politics, there is an uncontrollable reflex to read politics into everything. But every time I heard this point being elaborately expanded upon, I just wanted to scream "Drop it. For once in your life, drop it. Why does absolutely everything have to be viewed through the political lens of the right and the left, of conservative and liberal? Why must there always be this effort to gain the upper hand?"

Sometimes an opening ceremony is just an opening ceremony. Yes, there are nations that stress community over individuality. There are nations that hide their uncute singers, try to wash the smog from the skies and have poor records on human rights.

These nations have become what they are through centuries, millennia, of history, and to think we can, or should, try to snap our fingers and make them like us is delusional.

And this, of course is another paradox. We shudder at the Chinese in the opening ceremony all acting exactly alike. Yet we continue to insist that everyone else in the world should act exactly like us. It's like me thinking that everyone should hate soccer, just because I hate soccer.

We try to "celebrate diversity" and find joy in the fact that everyone is different, but we don't mean it. Those who condemned the uniformity of the opening ceremony are the same ones who staunchly, in their hearts, believe every last person on earth should think exactly as they do.

How boring a world that would make. Look what happened to tennis - for years the tennis police worked around the clock to beat down the flamboyant personalities of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase. They wanted everyone to behave like Bjorn Borg. And they pretty much got it. And now, no one watches tennis.

The Olympics are fascinating because of all the divergent cultures and divergent sports. We have the home-grown American hero in Michael Phelps. We have the fresh, wildly talented goof in Jamaican Usain Bolt. We have controversies you would hear nowhere else: "It is unfair that we should have to compete against 12-year-olds." We can wonder what the ancient Greek champion Agias of Pharsalos would have thought of beach volleyball.

All these different things make the world. We can and should speak out for human rights, but the best, most persuasive thing we can do to move things in that direction is to set a good example here at home.

That's why torture is wrong. That's why cooking up reasons to go to war is wrong. That's why nudging our allies into dubious provocations of our "enemies" is wrong. That's why ignoring the environment is wrong.

If we are going to agitate for a higher standard for the world, we need to be on the cutting edge with ideals on which we refuse to compromise. It's been that way for better than two centuries, and with increasing globalization it would be an inopportune time to change now. It would be nice to be known and admired for something a little heavier than the creativity of our advertising.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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