First, please take the time to watch this clip from Cirque du Soleil:
I’ve long been disinterested in the provenance of notable individuals. Musicians, photographers, writers, artists, scientists, &c. The primary reason is that the people who are able to achieve such feats of prowess tend to do so precisely because they are unlike everyone around them. These are people who, in general, either found a passion that led them to shun the world around them or who were channelled into an activity that cloistered them. Where the representative people in a society opted for being spectators and consumers, these individuals became cultural and/or intellectual producers.
Once their skill became notable, these individuals gained attention and were brought into the limelight, but until then, they were the strange fellow who scribbled all the time, the strange girl with paint on her hands, the nerd who never went out on weekends, &c. They only became interesting when they were so far out of others’ leagues that they were no longer a threat but a spectacle. Sometimes it takes a while for their achievements to percolate in the collective conciousness. This is observed typically with visual artists, musicians and writers. Orwell only started to register after Animal Farm (his second-to-last novel, he had four written before then). Van Gogh famously only sold one painting in his lifetime. This list is quite long.
For these reasons, I am a little saddened by the Olympics. Today athletes started arriving in London wearing the colours of their country, sometimes also holding little flags. Back in their home countries, these individuals are anomalies. In some countries, athletes are famous for receiving little to no support from their governments. They only matter when the cameras are on them. Before and after, they are nobodies other than in a secluded grouping of people that have little to no integration with the rest of their society.
I imagine that Cirque du Soleil clip being preambled with the names of the performers, complete with little flags, the fifteen-second synopsis of their lives and anything else that could add to the drama. At the end of the performance, the camera pans the audience, those in the performers’ country’s colours appearing either smug or despondent, depending on the outcome of the show.
I do believe in events that celebrate the achievements of individuals, but not when there is a nationalistic, political, religious or otherwise anti-intellectual layer smothering it.
When watching a game, an event or a race, I often do have a bias based on personal and irrational preferences, but I ultimately simply want to see a good game, match or meet. I often imagine watching a philharmonic performance that has been nationalised, with each musician having a little placard at their feet letting us know where they are from and there they studies, then mingling during the intermission and hearing people judge them not on their performance but on their origins.
I’ll end with two quotes. One from Marcus Aurelius, who, in the first few lines of his Meditations, stated that he had early learnt “to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partizan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights”. And, in closing, Orwell’s explaining the dangers of the politicisation of literature, “(…) to say ‘X is a gifted writer, but he is a political enemy and I shall do my best to silence him’ is harmless enough. Even if you end by silencing him with a tommy-gun you are not really sinning against the intellect. The deadly sin is to say ‘X is a political enemy: therefore he is a bad writer.'” (“Literature and the Left”, 1943.) In this case, hearing comments on the performance of athletes based on which country they represent creates a profound echo…