Olympic Games are a Rorschach test
The Olympic Games are a Rorschach test.
Look closely and you can see whatever you want to see.
Do you perceive portraits of pure athletic achievement? Do you find allegories of perseverance and redemption? Do you detect the outlines of geopolitical collisions on fields of play?
The multitude of sketches on display at this year's bash in Beijing vary from Olympics past only in their details.
Front and center at the moment is 18-year-old freestyle skier Eileen Gu, the gold-medal star of The Games so far for the host Chinese. American-born to a mother who emigrated from China, Gu chose to compete for the home team, and has been the recipient of wild adulation and social media praise and the subject of fawning state-produced documentaries.
What's her ink blot? Is she an athlete who sensed a chance for veneration she might not have received in the U.S.? Did she reason that success in China as a Chinese athlete would turbo-boost her already swelling endorsement and modeling career? Is she hoping to somehow soothe the troubled waters between the two world powers? Is she simply paying tribute to her mother's heritage and to the country she visits yearly and seems to love dearly? Given that Gu was all of 15 when she decided which nation's uniform to wear, how much was this decision really her own?
And does that ink blot morph when you consider that Nathan Chen, the sublime U.S. figure skater who won the men's competition, has been ignored by Chinese media and not applauded by Chinese crowds and reviled by Chinese social media ostensibly because he chose to compete as he always has for his country of birth, not the nation from which his parents emigrated?
Interpretive opportunities abound.
Take the breathless pace and sharp-elbowed hurly-burly of short track speed skating with its myriad crashes and disqualifications. Do you see a sport that is cruel for the abrupt heartbreak it creates, thrilling for the high-speed drama it incubates — or poignantly beautiful for the random chaos it invites, the mirror it holds to life itself?
Or ski jumping, where five women in a team event were disqualified for wearing jumpsuits that didn't conform to guidelines, after the same jumpsuits passed muster in earlier individual events. Was this yet another lesson in the importance of following rules, or a reminder of the shifting standards that bewilder the rest of us in areas like pandemic restrictions?
Do you see in the brown hills surrounding the snow-white ribbons of the skiing venues a testament to Chinese determination to create all that powder or a parable about the effects of climate change?
And what to make of the Russian figure skater who failed a doping test, one of the oldest and perhaps most unsurprising ink blots of all, one whose contours change only with the sport? Do you see only the nefarious treachery of a Russian system that never is fully punished and never learns, or do you focus on the 15-year-old young woman whose peerless brilliance might not be tarnished but at the least is not as lustrous?
There is much to see, for sure. But as we're taking in this Rorshachian feast, I hope we're also looking more deeply at the humanity at the center of these Olympian quests, the same humanity at the center of all of our quests.
It's there in the tears of snowboarder Shaun White contemplating the end of his competitive career, the dejection of Mikaela Shiffrin sitting alongside the course from which she had just skied out, the focus on the face of every athlete at every starting line and gate, and, yes, the exuberance of Eileen Gu after her big-air victory.
If we miss that in our effort to make sense of what we see, we're not really seeing the picture after all.
Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.