Well I guess we should say something about the Olympics

What can one say, anthropologically, about the Olympics, anthropologically? I’m not an expert like “John Macaloon”:http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=john+macaloon and I haven’t done much to follow coverage of the games on the Internet other than cheer on “Papua New Guinea”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papua_New_Guinea_at_the_2008_Summer_Olympics, which was as usual given scandalously short schrift at the Parade of Nations and watch olympic tabards get handed out for bgs on World of Warcraft.

The Olympics are a lot like Western social thought: they tend to oscillate around a tension between the individual and the group. Are the Olympics about individual achievement or national pride? Are they about politics (competition between groups) or sport (competition between individuals)? Everyone knows that posing the question in these terms is naggingly unsatisfying, but they can’t seem to think of any other way to approach the issue.

Anthropology comes in both individual- and social-focused variations, as well as a couple of different flavors which attempt to overcome, underline, reinscribe, or deconstruct the dichotomy. But one thing that is special about anthropology is the strength of its history emphasizing the power of the social and the collective. Everytime I see a swimmer dive into the water at the start of a race I sort of imagine them being shot out of a gun composed of trainers, family, friends, swimsuit manufacturers, and chlorine manufacturers. Anthropology, I think, would insist that individual performance is the result of collective effort.

More specifically, we could say that the Olympics represent a certain sort of ‘structure of the conjuncture’ as Marshall Sahlins described it. Unlike Elian Gonzalez or Captain Cook, whose life and agency became enormously amplified as the result of a ‘perfect storm’ of structural conjunctures, athletes like Michael Phelps and Dika Toua become important and relevant actors at a global scale because of the culturally specific structure of Olympic competition. Like Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard Round The World,” Olympic competition is a great example of a situation in which the culture provides the background and the individuals execute — Olympics only work when — because — we have both athletes and collectivities at work.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

18 thoughts on “Well I guess we should say something about the Olympics

  1. To me the really striking thing about the Olympics is not so much the confrontation of the individual and the collective, as the way that extremely small communities organized around neurotically specialized and standardized actions [such as diving in unison: people who dive in unison, people who train people to dive in unison, and people who judge whether the dives were successful or not, based on differences impenetrable to the overwhelming majority] take on a fleeting symbolic importance for extremely broad collectivities like nations and “the international community”.

    In comparison to speed walking, experimental music is practically “mainstream”–it has venues, practitioners and fan communities in big cities around the world–but there is no moment in which the (equally socially structured and individually performed) practice of discordant improvisation is presented to “the nation” or the world as an embodiment of itself.

    Most interestingly, it seems to me (as somebody who cares nothing about sports) that many tiny Olympic sports communities exist solely in order to appear, every four years, as representatives of broader collectivities. If there were no Olympics, would there be any professional divers? The Olympics might be attributed to the ideology of sport, or the ideology of sport (in some places, such as Beijing, where I live) might be attributed to the Olympics….

    Perhaps the ability of these rarefied, technologized, specialized sports to take on meaning for viewers has something to do with the nature of the actions themselves–many Olympic sports are the result of a bizarrely clinical subdivision of more common activities, such as swimming, bicycling, marksmanship. hmm.

  2. Aww come on, all this talk of individuals and collectives, stop beating round the bush – you are going to have to bring out the F-word at some stage. Raise the spectre of 1936!

    Although, when I see events on the TV this is what I mostly think: we’d make great pets.

  3. What I am impressed with about these Olympics is how much money was spent–40 billion, as was reported, more than the last five Olympics, if the news can be trusted. But what does 40 billion buy? Some of the most state of the art architecture. Apparently, even the pool is designed to reduce waves as swimmers move through the water. I don’t know if wave reduction is symbollically important to the average tv viewer of the games, but it is significant how much technological advances have been highlighted in these games and commented upon by the press. Combine that with aesthetic, such as the main stadium, and the message is clear. The Great Divergence (a la Pomeranz) is over with.

  4. Well, was the great divergence ended or simply erased? As far as I could tell the opening ceremonies skipped directly from Zheng He to post-Tiananmen bodysuits. Maybe I missed the last two or three centuries during the commercial break?

    Does anyone have good links on how the opening ceremony presented Chinese history? There’s got to be tons written on it.

  5. Status bloodbath. Goffman via Geertz.

    Waste as index of meaning.

    F-word, yes. I’ve been interested in the subtext about collectivization in the lavish praise of the opening ceremonies from people like Bob Costas. Can’t get over how the Chinese are able to get all those folks so perfectly coordinated. The admiration seems genuine and yet oddly orientalist. Have you never seen a marching band at a football half-time show, Bob? Or “Up With People?” Apparently doing the exact same thing with two thousand rather than two hundred changes the interpretive scale.

  6. Well, as some one who has performed in ensembles ranging in size from 2 to 200, I’d say that changes in scale _do_ affect the difficulty of coordinating performances. What struck me was the fact that the drummers, for instance, seemed to be wearing IFBs, which took some of the charge out of it.

    Then on the other hand… how much do you have to know about the country to find surprising the idea that it’s good at forms of governance that really excel in creating monumental performances/material culture through the mobilization of _tremendous tremendous amounts of people_?

  7. I didn’t know they were wearing earpieces, but for a performance that makes people into pixels it is perhaps only appropriate that they were remotely triggered.

    And when we start talking about arrays, we should expect to find interesting stuff from people studying data aesthetics:


    And following the link in that post to another on modular mass production and the terracotta army leads to other thoughts that I don’t have the time to articulate…

    For more human pixels see here:


  8. It is interesting, beyond the structures of conjuctures, the Phelps v. Spitz “saga” has me thinking a great deal about Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy”. And about what comes after the Olympics for these athletes, now caught by degrees in such structures. They become products, or perhaps, better said, they become brand names–corporate emblems.

  9. Yay! A Gravity’s Rainbow reference!

    Rex, you’re right. But I’m not sure that scaling occurs in coordinated systems between 200 and 2000. I’m not even sure that getting a million men with guns across the Yalu River encounters any scale thresholds. As long as each unit in the system has a trainable lockstep function and rigorously controlled inputs (the earpieces, which I suspect were just stage monitors so they could keep on their counts without losing time to sound difraction in that big space) the dynamic is merely additive.

    Where you get scale effects is in networked systems subject to chaotic inputs. Those systems are based on a looser feedback model sensitive both to initial conditions and evolving fluxes. So the coordination dynamic is not merely additive because each new unit you plug in adds a variable. The coordination comes not from rigid task closure but the global mission definition within which the improvisations are occurring. There were no improvisations during that opening ceremony.

    The famous macro-example of system coordination vs. network coordination is the blitzkrieg. The French were locked into a rigid command hierarchy and task closure based on a detailed but static definition of the situation. They were broken the moment the Germans, whose command model was more fluid, succeeded in changing the situation and exploiting its evolution.

    At a micro-level I heard an interesting example of this from the Games. It turns out Michael Phelps is the kind of guy who thrives on routine. He has a procedure locked in and does the same thing every time. He’s the Maginot Line of swimming, and he’s formidable because the rules of the situation are locked in so that all of the variables can actually be pre-managed. In contrast, his closest competitor Ryan Lochte has no routine. He says he sees the water and visualizes going fast, then just does it. If the swimming was not happening in lanes he’d beat Phelps every time.

    In Chinese cultural history this is like the difference between a Confucian (or better, a Legalist) and a Daoist, which brings me back to the original point that although the Chinese are indeed particularly good at large-scale systems coordination, because of their historical success in controlling input variables for long periods, they’ve also had some big shakeups; and like any culture that has coped with uncontrolled variables they also have resources of network coordination to call upon. Of course the same is true for the United States, which may default to network coordination but is perfectly capable of systems coordination when that’s what’s called for.

  10. Yeah — note to self: when fighting a modern war, put radios in your tanks.

    The other thing that I haven’t seen get a lot of press is the issue of doping. On the one hand we have athletes who — I imagine — see their bodies in a very ‘Strathernian’ way: subject to endless work and modification by all sorts of people, chemicals, etc. etc. On the other hand we have rules which focus around ‘individual’ achievement and which makes using drugs to enhance performance seem unethical, because these substances somehow modify the body/subjectivity of the athlete in a way that compromises the idea that they are an autonomous, achieving actor.

  11. Good point. I wonder if we could link this up somehow to Chris’ transhumanism post. There does seems to be a species and agency essentialism at work, which also gets back to your great image of the support and conditions gun firing out swimmers.

    Btw, Tim your links are cool.

  12. Well you know one of the things that everyone says about Papua New Guinea, where I do my work, is that people there see bodies are locations for the crystallization of networks of relations and substances — fathers, uncles, meat, milk, pigs, shells, cash, etc. So I think that ‘athlete as nexus of relationships’ doesn’t make us transhuman — just human.

  13. Sure! Is this why we don’t consider the sporting agency of athletes to be impaired by performance-enhancing relationship nexuses, even though this is obviously the case?

  14. If the links below are any indication it seems that Internet viewership of the Olympics—and, more importantly, network executives’ notice of the volume of that viewership—may presage how we will be watching TV in the near future. Which presages a semantic question: Is watching hulu watching TV or watching internet?



    Surely Chris Kelty wants to weigh in at this point…

  15. Susan Brownell on PBS’s News Hour
    In case you missed it, above is the link to a videocast of Brownell’s interview; she is clearly the one person most knowledgeable about the story behind the Beijing Olympics.

  16. I’m surprised that it took until the 18th comment for anyone to say that the agency/structure of the conjuncture debate seem academic in the pejorative sense, given that all the countries in the Olympics spend so much money on a bunch of games in a world afflicted with poverty, pollution, hatred, and corruption. All those resources could have gone towards supporting free health care for all, independent media, public transit infrastructure, free tuition, community-supported agriculture, independent artists, locally owned co-op businesses, affordable food and housing for all, lobbying against corporate control of governments and media, labour unions, student unions, women’s groups, queer rights, anti-racist groups, therapy for survivors of trauma, or any number of other equitable, sustainable, peaceful projects. While these scholarly/theoretical questions are interesting for me, too, peace, health, and equity are compelling and exciting. I know I’m not the only anthropologist who is in the theory and research game as a means to improving the big- and small- “a” activism of myself and others.

    The Olympics has a dirty history in every host city. Poor people get shipped out or thrown in jail, very often. “Stimulation” of the local economy usually does not result in a reduction of poverty after the games. New buildings usually do not provide public access or housing for the poor after the games.

    The country where I work has never hosted the games, but an incredible amount of money is poured into its very successful football team. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be games or teams at all because they do a lot of good for some people, but they’re often taking money away from human rights protection and the basics of life; that’s not okay, I don’t think. In this same country where I work, the President hasn’t changed in 20 years, old-growth forests are being clear-cut, private British and American companies are making a killing providing terrible utilities services, and police routinely extort illegal payments from frightened poor people.

    Even if you don’t work with a threatened, marginalized, or poor community, you do share a planet with everyone and it’s an ethical imperative that we act on the fact that we’re all in this together. To me, that means fostering knowledge, kindness, and generosity, which I understand and apply psychospiritually, micro-interactively, ecologically, and structurally/systematically. And THAT means, I think, speaking out against one or more of the injustices associated with the Olympics before getting to the fun of theorizing the Olympics. Read “Hope’s Edge” by Lappe and Lappe and “The Anti-Politics Machine” by Ferguson.

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