The Olympics are many things. Some of them are obvious: a celebration of sport, physical achievement, and excellence; a way to bring nations together in competitive cooperation (or cooperative competition) rather than in war. Others take a few moments’ reflection to notice: they are a way for local, and sometimes national, coalitions of business interests to make lots of money, usually at others’ expense. That’s why the Olympic bidding process is typically accompanied by protest and divisiveness: while the Olympics bring revenue to to some, they require huge investments in infrastructure, which takes away funding from other things, such as public services. And they often require moving things around — people, homes, people without homes — either forcibly or through economic pressure, to create the venues to host them. Vancouver’s Winter Olympics were all these things, though NBC’s coverage showed little of the controversy the alternative media buzzed with.
But perhaps most of all, the Olympics are a way for nation-states, and especially for the host countries, to buttress themselves both in their own internal solidarity (which has been flagging in Canada in recent years) — by ratcheting up the patriotism — and in the profiles they present to the rest of the world, as a kind of technicolor visiting card for tourists and potential business partners from around the world. Canada did well with the first: winning 14 gold medals, a new world record for the Winter Olympics, capped by their overtime hockey win over the U.S., was everything Canadian sports fans could have hoped for. But with the second, they could have done much better.
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