Saturday, August 16, 2008

why i love the Olympics (part 2: friendship)

we treat friendship like a commodity, like a cheap trinket bought and sold.

in some ways, we treat friendship as something even less--trinkets bought and sold at the very least indicate a recognition of some kind of value, but so many times we make and discard friendships for nothing, suggesting utter disrespect and ignorance for their significance and meaning.

and so friendship is cheapened into something less. and we treat it accordingly. harshly. we ignore it, we abuse it, we use it, we punish it. we give it no credit for its sacrifices and support, and assign to it all blame for our failures and wrongs. we deny its claims of honesty, and we engage in paranoid delusions as to its motives. we provide it no sustenance, and take from it everything to feed our selfishness. we conspire against it, sabotage it at every opportunity. we abandon it, even destroy it, with the slightest whisper of a whim.

and then we think nothing of the disrespect that has been made, or the harm that has been done, or the loss that has been suffered. to the friendship between peoples, to the other person, and most of all, to ourselves.

it's a wonder there is any bond of any value of any kind between people on this earth.

which is why i love the Olympics.

in the West, we are not privy to certain Olympic sports. the news telecasts in the United States, in particular, skip over sports it deems less popular to a domestic audience. which includes things like dressage, crew, ping pong, or pistol shooting. which is a shame, because it missed out on a very special Olympic moment.

the finals of the air pistol competition were held this past Sunday, August 10. Americans were denied live broadcast of the event, and more importantly, the medal award. news of what happened had to be relayed via print media, which gave it only brief mention.

you can read about what happened in the following selection of articles:
i've put the full text of the first article below, since it seemed to give the best story.

the background is this: Russia recently invaded Georgia, using military force to occupy the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, essentially creating a state of war--de facto (as in net effect, with soldiers fighting and people dying), if not de jure (as in officially declared by either government)--between the two countries. i won't go into the details here, but you can reference short summaries at: Washington Post, CNN, and BBC.

during the medal ceremony for the air pistol competition, the silver medal was awarded to Natalia Paderina, a Russian, and the bronze medal was awarded to Nino Salukvadze, a Georgian. they are competitors and arch-rivals, but also happen to be very good friends. and despite the hostilities between their 2 countries, they made a public expression of their friendship and gave each other hugs and kisses while on the medal stand, and followed this by statements to the press of their continued dedication to their friendship in the face of adversity.

nino salukvadze gave the following quote (as translated in various incarnations):
"if the world were to draw any lessons from what i did there would never be any wars. we live in the 21st century, after all. we shouldn't really stoop so low to wage wars against each other."
on one level, this displayed the nature of friendship between 2 different people. it's a strong one, a sincere one. one able to withstand the pressures of their countries, and one able to hold against the onslaught of global geopolitics. and more than this, it looks past notions of country or culture or cause or conflict to recognize people as being people and a person as a person, and hold to the bond that is there, and preserve it in the face of hostility.

on another level, however, it speaks to something more. it speaks to faith, and respect, and honor. faith in the relations that exist between people. respect for those relations, as much as there is respect for others as human beings. and honor that is given to the meaning of the friendship that can arise as a result.

this, despite all the anger and hate and rage and anxiety and fear and paranoia and jealousy and suspicion and cynicism and bitterness and sorrow and despair that fills this world. despite all the violence and sickness and torment and suffering that consumes this globe. despite all the forces of darkness that seduce and enslave this earth. despite everything that strives to drive us apart and have us hurt one another.

despite all speaks to faith and respect and honor to the relations between people, and the meaning of friendship that can arise as a result.

because there is meaning in friendship. meaning in that we as human beings can truly seek to sustain one another, can truly seek to give sustenance and aid to each other, can truly seek to be selfless and sacrifice to others, can truly seek the betterment of another.

meaning in that we can commit to such ideals and thereby dedicate ourselves to greater virtues...and to do so not alone, but with the knowledge that we are accompanied by those who believe and feel and act the same, so that our combined aspirations unite to lift not only ourselves or one another, but the entire state of humanity within which we live.

there is meaning in friendship.

it's a meaning that's more than nothing, a meaning that's more than a commodity.

it's the meaning of being a human being.

it's the meaning of human life.

and just how great it--and how great we--can be.

Georgia and Russia stay in Olympics, despite threat of war
International Herald Tribune
By Jeré Longman
Sunday, August 10, 2008

BEIJING: On Friday night, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia stood on the welcoming line at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics. By Saturday night, he returned home on the front line. On Sunday, Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia edged toward full-fledged war, leaving the medal count grimly superseded by talk of a body count.

Often, the opening ceremonies are the most inspiring part of the Olympics, reality trumped for four hours by possibility. Iran marches next to Iraq. North Korea sometimes walks shoulder to shoulder with South Korea. But as the Russian athletes and Georgian athletes rolled into the Olympic Stadium on Friday, tanks rolled into South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia that has support from Moscow.

While a human peace dove flapped its wings on the infield of the Olympic Stadium, and spectators raised their arms in pantomimed flight, bombers took to the sky in the Caucasus. Hundreds are said to have died over the weekend.

Early Sunday morning, Georgia considered withdrawing from the Olympics. But, at 3 a.m., the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, instructed his country's 35-member team to remain in Beijing, passing the message through his wife in the athletes' village, athletes and a spokesman said.

Later Sunday morning, Georgia won its first medal as Nino Salukvadze took bronze in the women's 10-meter air pistol competition. Russia also confirmed that it would continue to participate. And athletes from the two countries offered a sporting gesture of conciliation.

After the women's air-pistol competition, the Russian silver medalist, Natalia Paderina, shared the podium with Salukvadze, the bronze medalist from Georgia. The women, who are friends, gave each other a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

The decision by Georgia and Russia to remain in Olympic competition "reflects the Olympic spirit and the value of the Games," said Giselle Davies, a spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee.

The two countries will meet Wednesday in women's beach volleyball. But no one expects the kind of animosity that occurred at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, when the Soviet Union met Hungary in men's water polo three weeks after invading Budapest.

The game, known as the "blood in the water" match, became so confrontational that it was halted before time had expired, with Hungary ahead by 4-0. News reports at the time said angry spectators crowded the pool deck, shouting and spitting on the Soviet players, prompting the police to intervene.

But these are different times. The Soviet Union is no more. And while their governments were on the brink of war, athletes from Russia and Georgia mingled during the opening ceremony.

There are complicating layers to the story. Two weightlifters on the Georgian team are from South Ossetia, as reportedly are some of the Russian wrestlers. Allegiances, like the milky sky here, are not so clear.

"For the Olympics, unfortunately, this is not a big deal," David Wallechinsky, a leading Olympic historian, said of the Russia-Georgia conflict.

Georgia, which first competed as an independent nation at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, does not field a big enough Olympic contingent to be a force in team sports. Instead, it seeks medals in individual sports like boxing, judo, weightlifting and wrestling. That will blunt any potential tension when athletes from the countries meet at the Beijing Games, Wallechinsky said.

"When it's individual against individual, you probably wrestled against the guy before in the European championships or the world championships," he said. "You don't see him as a Russian who invaded your country; you see him as a guy who beat me 3-2 last time. If it was team sports, it would be more volatile. But I'm not worried about beach volleyball. What are they going to do, say, 'Here's sand in your eye'?"

The timing of the conflict could not have been more embarrassing and inopportune for the International Olympic Committee, which has joined with the United Nations since the 1990s in calling for a so-called Olympic truce during the Winter and Summer Games.

The idea was spawned by the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the bombing of Sarajevo, the host city of the 1984 Winter Games. But the truce is only a recommendation and is nonbinding. Contrary to a widely held belief, war did not stop during the ancient Olympics either, Wallechinsky said.

"It's a nice idea, but really it was safe passage," he said. "If a war was going on, they would stop and let athletes and spectators go to Olympia. Then they would fight again. When the Olympics finished, they stopped again and let everyone leave."

By Sunday evening in Beijing, the Georgian Interior Ministry said it had withdrawn its troops completely from South Ossetia, leaving it under Russian control, in an attempt to stop further bloodshed. Russian reports were contradictory.

"Our athletes are nervous; they are thinking about their families," said Giorgi Tchanishvili, a spokesman for the Georgian Olympic Committee. "But we are together with more passion and feeling. Maybe athletes can show somehow that you should be fighting only the sports arena. We can show all of the world that we want peace."

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