The Rio 2016 Olympics began over the weekend in Brazil. We are finally able to see real competition and cultural exchange among the nations of the world (206 of them, according to the International Olympic Committee, or 195 of them, according to mutual recognition among nation-states through the United Nations — this confusion further adds to the argument for a stateless society, but that argument does not belong in this particular post). Financial and economic aspects of the Olympics aside (think John Oliver, or just the ridiculousness of massive spending for short-term gain — to be covered, again, in a different post), the Games offer an opportunity to reflect on the effectiveness — or lack thereof — of multilateral institutions in bringing to the world harmony and stability between nations, and the stark contrast brought on by the Olympics.
The diplomat, whether a state ambassador to a foreign country or to the United Nations, has specific objectives that are designed to advance the interests of the country which he or she represents. American diplomats in particular go to foreign countries as ambassadors of the United States in order to promote democracy, reduce poverty, and to encourage “well-governed states.” The problem with such lofty and seemingly altruistic goals is exactly that: goals that are extremely difficult to achieve — particularly if left in the hands of bureaucrats of a dysfunctional government — and goals that have the ulterior motive of serving the interests of the American government, as opposed to the interests of the American people. How can such outrageous statements be made about the noble attempt for the improvement of the international system? Easy. The 2011 UN-sanctioned war in Libya, which cost $1 billion and some 60 civilian lives. Or perhaps the 2014 Ukrainian coup, which Samantha Power — US Ambassador to the United Nations — praised as being “reasonable” and “proportional” as she discussed the interim government’s killing of fellow Ukrainians. It can be said that the diplomat has a thing or two to learn about diplomacy.
The Olympian, on the other hand, is an athlete and representative of his or her country with the sole mission to compete against those athletes and representatives from other countries. While we may see foreign leaders shaking hands and posing for pictures displayed on antiquated sources of news as we board a plane, it is nothing compared to that feeling deep inside of us when we see our fellow countryman rise to the occasion and compete on the world stage with hundreds of millions of viewers. For Americans, there is nothing quite like watching Michael Phelps compete again and again, each time solidifying his spot as the greatest Olympian of all time. At the same time, we can’t help but feel joy for the Hungarian man who is losing his mind at the idea that his wife may break the world record, particularly in a preliminary race. One of the most revealing moments of the Olympics, however, is the during the opening ceremony, which combines the welcome by the host country with the introduction to the world’s greatest athletes. Each Olympics, without fail, I glance around the room to observe the reactions of people when certain countries appear on screen: Afghanistan. Iraq. Iran. Russia. China. These are the countries whom western society has deemed backward and dangerous. While in those moments I remain cynical regarding what I believe to be the shared attitudes of the audience, I am each time pleasantly surprised that, like me, most people are simply sizing up the competition rather than considering the perverseness of such geopolitics. As long as we don’t fret over our American standard-bearer smoking weed out of a bong, I think we’re golden.
Each new Olympic Games, I come away more optimistic about the attitudes that people have toward one another, regardless of their language or look. On top of that, I don’t remember the last time someone got excited about John Kerry meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu about shared interests, or whichever other silly term may be in vogue. It may be that human progress is alive and well after all.
Also published on Medium.