A couple of days ago, a colleague came up to me and told me in a very excited voice about the 41-year-old American woman who’s competing at the Beijing Olympics. “You should see her abs,” my colleague said. “They’re amazing. She’s got the most fantastic body … And she’s 41! And competing at an Olympic Games. That’s just amazing.”
Yes, the woman’s abs are great. It’s a credit to her that she’s competing in a sprint event in the swimming at an Olympic Games at 41.
But it’s not amazing.
Far from it.
Dig beneath the surface of this story, and you swiftly find that there is nothing ordinary about this woman’s ‘amazing-ness’ at all. Furthermore, the kind of attention given to this one person undermines the world -our world, my world, your world- of other achievements.
Indeed, in the spirit of Bordieau and Gramsci, it even acts to prevent us from recognising other achievements and labelling them as ‘achievements’. The media focus on Dara Torres -and my colleague’s reaction to it- invoke some observations about the contemporary world we live in.
1. Age. There are even older women and men competing at the Olympic in other sports (shooting, equestrian etc). Aren’t they are just as amazing – or is sport now only about the endless celebration of youth that we are bombarded with every day? Or, perhaps, is it that their sport not as marketable, nor are they as photogenic as Dara Torres?
2. Not ‘equal’ to begin with. Let’s face it – whilst not wanting to undermine this woman’s achievements, she is an extreme. She is almost six feet tall, has done modelling, comes from a very priviledged background (the house she grew up in had 10 bathrooms!). She was not ‘ordinary’ to begin with. She is also extremely driven: look at the lengths and expense she will -and can afford- to go to, in order to compete at the Olympic Games.
3. It’s only a swimming race. Why is the fact that she’s going to the Olympic games so amazing? It’s a swimming race. Why do we not celebrate other kinds of acheivements in this way? I’m 41 and about to complete a PhD. Why isn’t that just as valuable; indeed moreso? My point is this: why are my achievements (or the achievements of millions of people like me) valued less by society than Dara Torres’s? Yet no one from the NY Times is going to come and interview me about my achievements.
However, in contemporary Western culture (and especially in Australia) academic achievement is not viewed as ‘real’ achievement. It’s not sexy or heroic, nor can you put it on the front cover of a glossy news magazine to sell. In Australia, being clever or academic is seen as something of an embarrassment. Academics are treated as people with their ‘heads in the clouds’; people lost in the world of ideas whose contributions to society can be dismissed because they’re not based on practical experience.
(Next time you take an aspirin, hop in your car, or turn on you computer, remember that!).
This prompts me to ask what the Olympics represent in contemporary culture. A place where the world’s elite sportspeople compete against each other? A massive marketing and money-making event?
Or a place where cultural narratives (such as that revealed in the NY Times article) are further played out and reinforced?