Olympic fever - and ambivalence

I am an Olympics geek. I love the Games unabashedly. I will watch just about any event and endeavor to understand the finer points of completely foreign sports. I will endure sycophantic commentary, tape-delayed competition presented as live, and, apparently, Bob Costas' eye infection.

Sochi and I, however, have something of a problem.

First and foremost, the culture of intolerance that is not only accepted but has been inculcated into law in Russia, the host country of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, is repugnant to me. Russian president Vladimir Putin breezily equates homosexuality to pedophilia and bristles when others take offense, saying he's only trying to protect his country's children. Call me crazy, but maybe a country's children need to be protected from bullying, contract-fixing, bribe-paying, crony-rewarding corrupt politicians like, oh, I don't know, Vladimir Putin.

Which brings us to the staggering cost overruns and epic mismanagement of these Games. The initial estimated cost has soared past a record-shattering $50 billion, including a $9.4 billion highway-and-rail link between the Sochi coast and mountains that cost more than the entire 2010 Vancouver Olympics (thank you, Sports Illustrated). There is the looming threat of terrorist activity that has repeatedly bloodied mass transit stations, with the somewhat futile feeling of the heavy-handed security surrounding the actual venue itself.

And there's more: accommodations for athletes and journalists boasting urine-colored water that should not come in contact with human faces and thin mattresses without sheets; foreign journalists denied visas or evicted in moves more in tune with the Cold War; the 'designated protest zones' far from the athletes' villages.

So, what to do, to appease both my conscience and satisfy my appetite for Olympic competition? I never thought a boycott was a solution. The athletes sacrifice too much for too long to be punished in service of a political point, which is a lesson one hopes the world learned for good in 1980 and 1984. It would have been possible to mount a realistic campaign to move the Games had it gained more momentum quickly or had any sort of backing from the International Olympic Committee, which, sadly, does not have the most stellar history of exemplary, altruistic decision-making.

I don't know what purpose my not watching would serve, either. The Games are going on, and I want to see what happens. What I don't want to see, or hear, are idiotic comments such as the ones made by Opening Ceremonies co-host Matt Lauer, who said it's good that the focus is finally on the athletes, where it should be and where it should stay.

I understand his point, to an extent, but the Olympics are not just about the athletes, or the sports, or the medals, or the hyperbolic announcers, or the gargantuan, strategically placed cowbell carted about by the German figure skating team. That's all part and parcel of the pageantry, of course, but the Olympics are - or are supposed to be - about the personification of the even playing field, about equal opportunity and access for all, about the best of the human spirit and rising to the challenge.

That is no doubt a somewhat idealistic view, but if there's a time when it's OK to be somewhat simplistic, with mawkish aforethought, even, it is the Olympics. The false patriotism of 'Murica and the Us or Them mentality that makes me grit my teeth in usual circumstances is, within limits, to be tolerated and even encouraged - as long as the cheering remains for and not against. 

But it's ridiculous to say outside events should not be discussed, and criticized, if necessary. Even as it exists as a halcyon example of what sportsmanship can be, the Olympics have always been part of a larger context, from Jesse Owens' impressive stand in the face of Hitler's evil, to Tommie Smith and John Carlos' defiant clenched fists, to the tragedy of Munich, to the indelible image of Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta.

While the Olympics should be held to a higher standard, the Games are not exempt from human decency. Being awarded the chance to play host to the Games does not exclude a country from understanding universal values and keeping up with the direction of world opinion. The Olympics are about coming together and cooperation and, even as we cheer for our individual nations, the blurring of nationalistic lines. Setting your jaw and saying This Is How We Do Things Here is not the Olympic spirit.

But so many other things are, and that is why I watch. In the first few days of the Olympics, I've already been introduced to a 15-year-old Russian figure skating sensation who can contort her body into impossible positions while spinning on one foot, a Canadian snowboarder who launched himself off nausea-inducing walls of ice and flipped and twisted and landed with a broken rib, and a trio of sisters who shared and realized an Olympic dream. I've seen Johnny Weir rock his wraparound braid and his sparkling accessories while providing insightful commentary, some of it in Russian. I've felt the stomach-tightening anticipation of the last run of the night, and I've remembered to forget the ESPN ticker exists during the Olympics.

But while I've been watching that, I've also read this, and I would encourage you to, as well. It's political and it isn't, just like the Olympics. It's about human emotion, which is everything the Olympics represent. 

I'm going to keep watching. But I also plan to keep thinking.