Tag Archives: Olympics

Why We’re Obsessed With Taking Crazy Risks

I saw an extraordinary film tonight, a British documentary called Man on Wire. It’s a sharply made film about Frenchman Philippe Petit’s notorious, unauthorized high-wire walk atop the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974. The film is a funny, tender, fascinating, thrilling examination of one strange man’s obsession with flirting with death and living on the edge (literally).

It’s an extreme example, no doubt, but the film’s beauty is that Petit’s story serves so well as an archetype for humanity in general: we are wired to seek risk, to challenge ourselves, to dare death.

As I watched the film and marveled at Petit’s precarious, balanced walking across wires suspended thousands of feet about Manhattan, I thought of last night’s women’s gymnastics final and the amazing performances on the balance beam. Am I the only one who finds the beam the most impressive of all gymnastics feats? Watching Nastia Liukin tumbling and flipping and twirling on this narrow beam was utterly breathtaking. How do these people do it? And more curiously: why?

Indeed, my thoughts after seeing Man On Wire and a week’s worth of Olympic sports centers upon the question of why humans are subjecting themselves to such extreme, risky, unnatural challenges. Why are people like Michael Phelps consuming (and burning) 12,000 calories a day so as to be able to swim fast back and forth in a 50 meter pool? Why are weight lifters risking gruesome joint dislocations to raise unholy loads of metal above their heads? (as in Hungarian Janos Baranyai’s unfortunate accident earlier this week). Is it because in our post-industrial, ultra-pampered, developed world we have so little else to channel our primitive needs to conquer and destroy? Or maybe we’re just bored and looking for something—even bodily harm or death—that will jolt us awake?

With the Olympics we could say: well, there is the end goal of a gold medal and Wheaties box… And I guess that is as good a thing as any to spend one’s life painstakingly seeking. But something tells me that most of these athletes do what they do not just to get some shiny medal or trophy. There is something deeper and more elemental to it—a uniquely human willingness to sacrifice oneself physically (and mentally) for something that doesn’t have anything to do with survival. It’s not like Phelps is swimming for his life; it’s not like Petit is risking death on the high wire in order to escape a burning building (an image all too easily called forth given the twin towers’ ultimate iconic legacy).

No, these men are doing insane things because it is a thrill to do so… to push the limits of their being and transcend regular existence. I think we all have this desire, actually. But is it a good desire? Or is it a desire (like pride, lust, etc) that we must carefully keep in check? I don’t know, but it sure does make for thrilling entertainment.

Globalization, Obama, and Trafalgar Square

So I was in London on Saturday, and spent some requisite time wandering around Trafalgar Square in the rain. Like Times Square in NYC, Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, or other such urban centers, Trafalgar square is alive with bustling activity, tourism, and, well, masses of diverse humanity. Moving around the throngs of people on Saturday reminded me of just how much I love being in international cities and particularly these sorts of iconic public spaces.

What struck me on Saturday in Trafalgar square was that it felt less like London than it did some vaguely “world” city. There was a jumbotron set up in the middle of the square that was broadcasting the Olympics from Beijing, while Chinese dancers/acrobats/fireworks were entertaining passersby in other corners of the square. It was a celebration of globalization, world unity, etc, etc…. Was I wrong to wish for a more authentically British experience?

The Trafalgar experience made me think of Barack “I’m a citizen, not a presidential candidate” Obama’s speech in Berlin a few weeks ago. There, in one of Europe’s most politically-charged cities, Obama spoke to the largest crowd of his campaign… 200,000+ Germans. And these Germans just adored Obama; I haven’t seen them this excited about an American since Michael Jackson dangled his baby outside one of their windows (“Germany loves you, Michael!”) back in 2002. Obama’s strangely epic speech in Berlin created a similar mania, leaving the German press in a tizzy, fawning over the senator with headlines like “Berlin’s New Kennedy!”

What on earth is going on here? Is Obama running for president of the world? Last time I checked he was campaigning for the American presidency, not some vaguely apocalyptic “united world” government. Sure, his speech was amazing (they always are), and I’d lie if I said it didn’t give me goosebumps in a good way. But upon reflection the speech and its symbolic position in what is turning into a global presidential race left me rather skeptical and even a bit perturbed.

Yes, the world is globalized; we can’t avoid it and nor should we. It’s neither good nor bad; it just is.

But should nations really be raising up leaders to answer to other nations before their very own? Should our politicians answer to the “world community” and international pressures prior to the mandates of their own electorate? I’m not saying our leaders should be isolationist. Surely the world would be worse off without the outreach of people like Reagan and Churchill to a world community in need.

But Obama is not president yet. He isn’t even a particularly powerful politician. Why are hundreds of thousands of Berliners turning out to cheer him on? Do they know something about him that Americans do not?