How the Olympics Still Form a Global Community of Beauty and Nobility
The Olympics provide a place to celebrate national identity on an unparalleled scale, and rather than compete against each other maliciously, the games are an opportunity to showcase the beauty and nobility of competition.
Sebastian Junger is the #1 New York Times Bestselling author of THE PERFECT STORM, FIRE, A DEATH IN BELMONT, WAR and TRIBE. As an award-winning journalist, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a special correspondent at ABC News, he has covered major international news stories around the world, and has received both a National Magazine Award and a Peabody Award. Junger is also a documentary filmmaker whose debut film "Restrepo", a feature-length documentary (co-directed with Tim Hetherington), was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
"Restrepo," which chronicled the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, is widely considered to have broken new ground in war reporting. Junger has since produced and directed three additional documentaries about war and its aftermath. "Which Way Is The Front Line From Here?", which premiered on HBO, chronicles the life and career of his friend and colleague, photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed while covering the civil war in Libya in 2011. "Korengal" returns to the subject of combat and tries to answer the eternal question of why young men miss war. "The Last Patrol", which also premiered on HBO, examines the complexities of returning from war by following Junger and three friends--all of whom had experienced combat, either as soldiers or reporters--as they travel up the East Coast railroad lines on foot as "high-speed vagrants."
Junger has also written for magazines including Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside and Men's Journal. His reporting on Afghanistan in 2000, profiling Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just days before 9/11, became the subject of the National Geographic documentary "Into the Forbidden Zone," and introduced America to the Afghan resistance fighting the Taliban. He lives in New York City and Cape Cod.
Sebastian Junger: Sports are an interesting way for people who experience a collective identity. Sports teams in this country have their own sort of tribal impulses against each other. But then, you know, drop a few bombs on Pearl Harbor and then all of a sudden we’re one country facing an enemy. And people just naturally cohere into groups. And when you create a group just by necessity you’re also creating a whole bunch of people who aren’t in your group. And just mathematically know – that’s just a mathematical truth. And one of the interesting things about the Olympics is that it’s a chance for nations to demonstrate their nationness, to demonstrate the fact that they actually see themselves as a nation which is a beautiful thing. I mean that’s what we have organized ourselves into nations. That’s the modern world and when you see that on display it can be really moving. But it also because hopefully we’re sort of bigger than ourselves it also allows nations to entertain some kind of communalism between each other that’s sort of channeled through the ability of competition.
At the end of the day when you have different nations competing in the Olympics one of the things they’re all agreeing on is the incredible beauty and nobility of the human animal performing at its absolute peak. I’m reminded of a world class long distance runner that I’m friends with who competed in the mile in the 1960s and 70s. And he was at an international track meet in England and he was lined up on the track with the best milers in the world including the great Steve Ovett. And right before they started the race Steve Ovett pumped his fist in the air – he’s an amazing athlete. I think he had the world record for a while. He’s an amazing athlete. He raised his hand, pumped his fist in the air and he said okay gentlemen, let’s make it a good one. And what he was saying there, I mean he was going to try as hard as he could to win that race. But what he was also saying is look, it’s up to all of us to bring nobility to what we’re doing and what everyone in this arena has gathered to watch. So let’s do it. Don’t let them down. And I think the Olympics at their best can rise to that standard that Steve Ovett set at that moment.
Olympic history traces back to 776 BCE, where there was only one event, a race won by a cook called Coroebus. Since then, the Olympics have evolved. There are more games, more locations, and more people can attend, as women were once banned from attending in Ancient Olympia.
The Olympic Games naturally bring a country together. Everyone cheers for their home country, and together cry when someone else wins. It’s natural for people to form groups, and band together against the things outside of their tribe. Sometimes a country unites together in times of distress, for example after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, or the dropping of bombs on Japan. At those moments, countries unite to see what happens, and what they can do about it. The Olympics prove that it doesn’t take a tragedy to bring people together. Instead it shows how people can become one and cheer for gold as one moving part.
Sebastian Junger is a war reporter, and author of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. It is his belief that the idea of the Olympics relate to fundamental needs of humanity. This includes grouping, and naturally being against other groups. It’s about the home tribes banding together and being one. Sports has long proved that it can bring a mass of people together, with two sides in one stadium yelling and cheering for a win, and standing out in the parking lot to chant for their favored side.
That is the heart of the Olympics. Beyond just putting up a show for the world to watch, it’s bringing the country together, followed by bringing the world together. So many countries all at once watching the same thing, and wishing for the same goal, even if they belong to different tribes.