Saturday, August 9, 2008

Parents, showing off and the Olympics

The Olympic Games kicked off last night, so you'll be reading lots of boilerplate about how the sporting spirit will be raging and fair play will be celebrated.

We're not saying that's all a load of crock. But if we look at how some parents love to parade their children in name-brand finery, it'd be easy to understand how showing off is a big part of what this 'festival of sport' is actually about.

China, the hosts this time round, wants the whole world to know that it has arrived on the global stage and can stand tall in the company of giants. How better to do that than by staging a fiesta long on spectacle (and yesterday night's opening ceremony was indeed spectacular) and supreme efficiency? Look at our gleaming facilities, goes the message. Marvel at how far we're willing to go to make sure everything runs like clockwork. It hasn't been easy for the Chinese, who've had to contend with natural disaster and air pollution. They've banned drivers from driving every other day - among other measures to tamp down smog - and even rejigged working hours to tame traffic.

Is there anything wrong with any of this? Well, let's look at the parental parallel. Parents can show off in all sorts of ways. They could present to the world children who are wonderfully well-behaved, intelligent and sensitive to the needs of others. What marvellous child-rearing nous, we are moved to declare. Nobody would really mind, then, if pride figured in the parents' motivations: The child ultimately benefits. But suppose the parents tricked Junior out in the most expensive of attire, lavished him with toys and gadgets and otherwise saw that he more than wanted for nothing. If this is the extent of their showing off, the obvious difference here is, of course, is that the children don't necessarily benefit from such star treatment. They don't need fancy togs or the latest gewgaws to do well. Indeed, it might fray their moral fibre and weaken them mentally - even as their parents derive short-term joy from out-glamming their competitors.

All this applies, then, to the Olympics. If, at the end of the day, the Olympic frenzy throws up net benefits to the Chinese people, provides joy to millions and encourages the growth of sportsmanship, why should we judge too harshly? Sure, there's the politicking: The argument is that somehow, by celebrating the Olympics, we are giving legitimacy to the suppression of the Tibetans and authoritarian rule. But just as we should not blame children for the alleged sins of their parents, we shouldn't import too much of the calculations of politics into the striving of honest sportsmen.

Let them show off their sporting skills!