Opening ceremony, 2008 Olympic Games

Held in Beijing on August 8, televised by NBC.

The Olympic Games always pits cynicism against idealism, no matter where the event is being held. When you watch women’s gymnastics, do you think about girls being starved and overworked to prevent the onset (or at least slow the advance) of puberty, or do you just appreciate the artistry and athleticism of the competitors and the apparent joy they take in their routines? When you watch runners, do you think about how many of them might be boosting their performances with some drug cocktail or another, or do you just marvel at their speed and at the precision and teamwork of the relays? When you watch swimmers, do you think about the technical arms race of suit development and the global inequality it reflects, or do you just cheer for your country and beam at every new gold medal?

Every Olympic Games is an ethical tangle—a volatile mess of unchecked commercialism, rampant jingoism, vast financial disparities, questionable judging and refereeing, possible abuse of minors, and untold human suffering—so I don’t quite understand why the Beijing event has provoked so much more hand-wringing than usual, especially in the United States, where we’ve recently ceded the moral high ground when it comes to human rights violations. (By this, I do not mean that the violations are of equal weight, but rather that once you have to start arguing over which are worse, you’ve already lost.) Perhaps holding the Games in China does taint the event in some way, but so, too, do any number of other shameful blemishes on the ideals of the Olympiad. Pretending otherwise is naive.

But pretending there is nothing redeemable about the Games is foolish, too, because there are still beautiful moments, moments that do seem to live up to the ideals of international fellowship, of celebrating participation just as much as victory. I’m a sucker for the pageantry of the opening ceremony, for example, and Beijing’s was undoubtedly the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen.