Many in the United States have viewed this year's Olympics as little more than background noise -- another passing media diversion -- offering less hype and vigor than "Survivor" and ultimately to be replaced with November's presidential elections.
It's not just the tape-delayed coverage. There's a growing sense of resignation that the Games, once laden with meaning and cultural significance, have been replaced by slick, packaged stories of Olympic sponsors who now own the Games and define their cultural significance. So why didn't we connect to the Games?
We found the answers to this question by asking anthropologists around the globe to contribute an insider's view about the Games from their country's perspective. The themes that emerged help explain why the Olympics did not resonate with Americans as they once did.
Who are the enemies? In a post-Cold War environment, there's no Soviet Union to do battle with. Remember the 1980 ice hockey team? Now, Russian immigrants such as American swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg are winning medals wearing stars and stripes.
Many of the reasons why Americans used to love the Games, though, are alive and well in other countries, where citizens still attach plenty of meaning to the Olympics as a cultural event of the highest magnitude.
Across the world in Japan, anthropologist Carol Hui astutely pointed out that the Games are a lens into what defines us as a culture. Ms. Hui notes that marathons are nationally televised sporting events in Japan and are followed closely at the Olympics, despite being visually tedious. The reason: Japanese place high value on perseverance.
Closer to home in Mexico, anthropologist Lara Tabac reported that the country was in a patriotic frenzy over weightlifter Soraya Jimenez, who became the first Mexican woman to ever win a gold medal in the Olympics. Her triumph in a traditionally male-dominated sport stands in stark contrast to the machismo culture in which she grew up and "is a lightning bolt of attention highlighting recent shifts in gender relations and the increasing power of Mexican women."
In the host country, Cathy Freeman's march to light the torch was a symbolic representation of several themes at the Games and thus another reason to take them seriously. Of course, the most important has to do with the attempt to unify nations within the nation, in this case the Australian Aborigines and the rest of Australia.
Ms. Freeman also helped epitomize the place of women in sport -- connecting her spirit with that of Ms. Jimenez. And there is the irony of her getting trapped by the technology that was to lift the Olympic cauldron over her head a symbolic representation of how we have allowed technology to dominate the simple pleasures of sport and life.
As an anthropologist, these glimpses into other cultures show me the reasons we should care about the Games here in the United States. Why then are we in such a state of denial and seem to have lost that desire?
It's a defense mechanism.
Americans do not want to accept what our view of the Olympics says about us -- that the Games are mere fabrications produced by McDonald's, Coke and Nike, empty see-through stories all in the interest of making money. It's not that we don't have our share of meaningful stories, but our attention may be diverted because, like the marathon representing Japanese endurance, our commercial approach to the Olympics says a little too much about who we are.
We may simply have outgrown the innocence of the Games.
Robbie Blinkoff is principal anthropologist of Baltimore-based Context-Based Research Group, a global research company that uses its network of 1,700 anthropologists around the world to uncover cultural and consumer insights.
© 2000 The Baltimore Sun