People all over the country are parking in front of their TV’s for many hours every night to watch sports that they couldn’t care less about most of the year. The Olympics are extremely compelling for many of us. People are talking about the Olympics all across America, mostly sharing observations about the sports where Americans are competitive. It all seems very important, and you can tell this by the way earnest look on the faces of people who discuss the Olympics.
But what if a magic being appeared before you tonight and offered you the following option:
If you give your consent, I will go back in time and rig the Olympic outcome such that Americans will win only 10% of the medals that they were going to win this year. I will take away all the American women gymnastics medals and I will make sure that Michael Phelps doesn’t win any medals this year. I’ll make it a paltry medal year, an embarrassing year. In return, I’ll save 10 American children would have died from illness; I will magically cure them. My question to you, then, is whether you are you willing to give up 90% of America’s medals to save the lives of 10 children?
What percentage of Americans would make that trade, if they could make their decision in total secrecy? I wonder.
Assuming that the average American is sitting on a couch watching the Olympics for 20 hours this year, that’s a lot of person-hours that we could collectively spend on solving any of a great number of pressing problems. If Americans each spent 20 hours calling, writing and protesting America’s failure to have excellent schools or America’s insistence on warmongering, we could really turn things around. Politicians would be stunned by the fact that so many Americans cared and got involved. They would be unable to ignore such an outpouring of energy. We could turn around many children’s lives by fighting to allocate money from warmongering to schools. Every school I know could use funding for another teacher or two. If we all got together and put pressure on each other to give a bit more funding to our schools, we could affect the lives of real children. Or we could fight for clean money (government funded) elections. Or we could fight to dramatically cut our use of fossil fuels and convert to high efficiency use of sustainable energy.
But most of us don’t have the time to write or call our representatives to complain about local, state or national priorities. Most of us don’t have the time to attend meetings to fight for innocent children. We don’t have time to read up on most of the important issues of the day.
There’s nothing like the great power of a contest, a conflict, an agon. War and its pale relation, sports, are sacred to many of us, meaning that there is no negotiating whether we will participate as watchers for many dozens of hours. We humans are wired such that wars and sports contest generate their own meaning, especially when we combine these things with a preexisting embrace of nationalism. And there’s nothing like an international stage, where the athletes compete much like they compete all year round, but where everything seems more important just because lots of people are watching.
Maybe we need a political involvement Olympics here in America, where people decide to train-up on important social and political issues by reading up and discussing these issues with each other, and then using all their training and energy to reshape America’ priorities.