Olympics, Art and the Human Experience

Every time the Olympics roll around, a strange thing happens to my personality. A non-sports enthusiast generally, all of a sudden I develop an intense interest in things that would ordinarily not even come close to penetrating my cultural consciousness.

Photo courtesy williamsdb via Flickr

Over the last two weeks, I’ve watched women’s shot put, indoor cycling, synchronized diving, along with myriad other sporting displays that typically would march right on by on the TV Guide scroll with nary a glimmer of interest from me.

I think this is a common phenomenon, or at least judging by some of the marveling I’ve seen on my Twitter and facebook feeds about athletic events many people never knew existed. There’s something about the Olympics that captures our imagination and unites our consciousness in a way that actually broadens it, even if it’s only for a brief period of time. (I am fairly certain it will be four more years before I ever see another synchronized dive again).

But there’s something else I believe that can capture our imagination and broaden our consciousness in what I think can be an even more lasting way if we let it.


Experiencing art, watching art, observing the creation, intention and presentation of art can inspire us profoundly. It can make us look at the world differently, open doors to new ideas and that can last far beyond our amazement over a dive or a throw or a leap.

As I watched the Olympics this year I kept thinking about sport and art and how we relate to both of these things as a culture. There are people who would say that art is not essential to our lives. I’m not one of them, but I know these people exist. I wouldn’t want to walk a mile in their shoes (or live in a space they have decorated) but I understand and accept that there are as many ideas and perspectives as there are humans on this planet.

It occurred to me that sports are also kind of an arbitrary element of society. (They certainly are an arbitrary element of my human experience.)

Logically, there is nothing about sport and the human excellence to be found in it–whether we are enjoying personal excellence or celebrating it in others–that is literally essential to society in general, at least not more so than art in any form.

And yet, especially in America, sport has become essential. We revere (and pay) sports stars above many artists and all teachers, firemen, social workers, etc. We can’t imagine a world without our football, basketball, gymnastic superstars.

And why should we? Even though sport is not a personal pursuit of mine, I am wholly on board with the idea of human pursuit in general. I think the energetic compound of so many people driving forward, urging themselves to succeed and excel, can only be a good thing.

But to me that thought applies equally to art. Art is another way for us to pursue a larger, more rewarding, more encompassing experience during the relatively brief time we are blessed with the body and mind to do so. And for non-artists, exposing ourselves to the work of the geniuses among us, can have a deep and lasting impact on or lives as much as if not more than watching a sports star whose physical prowess we can never hope to emulate.

The Olympics are all about pursuit. A vast majority of the competitors who attend the games will never see the top of a podium, will never feel the weight of a medal around their neck, and yet they train. They persevere. They work. They believe. They shed their sweat and blood and tears in this pursuit of physical excellence, and once and a while all of that results in a collective pause for the entire planet to appreciate it, whether we know all their names and faces or not.

I watched cameras close in on the faces of competitors in the Olympics and somehow began to think about all the unnamed, unknown young artists who surely exist in each of these countries.

For every aspiring athlete on the field of play there is probably an artist out there too. One who is sweating, and bleeding and persevering and pursuing and creating as well. And they’re doing it with even less hope of recognition, monetary success or validation than any young Olympian from an unknown town of the tiniest country.

These unsung artists and their contribution to society, to our global culture is of no less value to me simply because we have no accepted global mechanism to showcase, celebrate and evaluate it for the masses.

And maybe that’s why we as a culture often struggle to connect with art. It’s the evaluation process. Art is subjective. There is no winner in art, because there is no race. There is no “correct form” or perfect score, or world record to be broken time and again. We have to relate to art and artists as individuals, simultaneously identifying and accepting the weight of our own experience, our own preconceived notions, our own limitations as we bring it to what another has created. And that’s a rough thing to do for some people.

I feel privileged to live in a city and to be surrounded by co-workers and patrons who do appreciate the artists of our times. I feel what we as an organization do and what our fellow arts presenters do is vital to the cultural undercurrent of all existence. Do I absolutely love everything I see, hear or experience in the arts? No. Do I marvel at the fact that what I am seeing or hearing sprang from the spirit and creativity of another human being? Every time.

What brought this all to bear for me this Olympics season was thinking about Akram Khan. We are presenting his work Vertical Road in October. Leading up to the Olympic Games this year, we were all very excited to see Akram included in the spectacle that always results from the opening ceremony.

Danny Boyle, the producer of London’s opening ceremony specifically asked Akram to contribute to this huge project that would be seen by millions around the globe because of what Boyle saw in Vertical Road.

He invited Akram to either choreograph either the entire opening ceremony, or gave him the choice to create a smaller, more intimate work on the theme of mortality, which is what Akram chose to do. It was situated in the program as part of a tribute to terrorism victims.

It is a beautiful, ruminative and gentle piece of dance, one that brought tears to my eyes as I watched it, and still does on repeat viewings. We’ve all lost people in our lives, and I think we all would implore those loved ones to abide within us. Akram touched on a subject we can all relate to with his great talent.

Unfortunately, most Americans didn’t get to experience this work and probably never will. NBC edited it out of their U.S. broadcast in favor of running an interview between Ryan Seacrest and Michael Phelps, which undoubtedly many viewers enjoyed as much as I enjoyed what was cut.

It’s worth watching, whether you are a dance lover or not, and by all accounts was incredibly well received by the audience in attendance. Of course, you won’t be able to actually watch the whole thing anywhere because all video of it has been blocked for copyright. Shortly after the opening ceremony, Deadspin once had a full excerpt filmed off of the BBC broadcast, but it has since been replaced by just a few seconds of video.

Akram was understandably disappointed that his work was excised from this major market broadcast, and so were all of us around here. We’re still disappointed that we can’t share it with others.

But for me, the omission served another purpose. It got me to pay even more attention to the piece, it got me started on this whole thought process of “what else haven’t I seen?” “What else is going on out there?” It makes me even more eager to experience new and different things as I get the opportunity. It makes me want to share these thoughts in this space and tell anyone who will listen about it.

And I guess, in a way, that’s artful too.

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