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.