For two weeks Olympic reality has pushed aside TV reality. Instead of debauchery, drunken binges, and aimless lives, we’ve had hard work, uplifting stories, and fierce competition — not to mention an awful lot of very buff bodies. The athletes in London seem far different from the kind of people the media normally celebrate. Yet is the line between the two really that distinct?
Recent years have seen a qualitative change in popular culture. In the past, celebrity was mostly reserved for those who achieved great things. Today, with the help of reality TV, we produce more and more folks who are famous for being famous; the accomplishments of the Paris Hiltons and Kardashians of the world are mediocre, if not inconsequential. Then too, even those who actually do have talent seem better known for the tawdry: Lindsay Lohan and her addictions; Charlie Sheen and his public breakdowns; Rihanna and her complicity in physical abuse.
There are, sadly, few celebrities in their late teens or 20s that parents can point to and tell their children, “Be like him. Be like her.” And since role models matter for adults, too, who is it that we should look up to? Donald Trump?
What a contrast the Olympics seem to present. As intense as the competitions are, the back stories can provide even greater drama. The tales are predictable yet still compelling, and some have been unusually striking. Kayla Harrison grew up in Ohio and was sexually abused for years by her first judo instructor. Broken and at times near-suicidal, she fled to Wakefield where a father-and-son team of instructors helped her pick up the pieces. She gold-medaled in her sport, the first American ever to do so. Meanwhile, Needham’s Aly Raisman, the captain of the US women’s gymnastics team, provided a close-to-home example of how an entire town can become deeply inspired by a high schooler’s unrelenting effort and unassuming manner.
This is inspiring in one other important way: The Olympics bring together over 10,000 athletes from 202 nations — athletes who are competing, yes, but also cheering each other on because excellence transcends national boundaries. In London, American athletes vied with athletes from countries we boycott (Cuba), mock (North Korea), and fear (Iran). Watching all of these athletes together, peace, love, and understanding seem so near at hand.
As stirring as all of this feels, one wonders how much of an illusion it is. The Olympics are as much about nation-against-nation as they are athlete-versus-athlete; the competition between China and the United States for medal counts smacked of war by other means. The US men’s basketball game against Argentina turned vicious. Badminton teams from South Korea, Indonesia, and China were disqualified for throwing their matches. Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou was booted before the games for a bigoted tweet. Swimmer Ryan Lochte, he of the stupid grill-work and one-night stands (as noted by his mother, no less), came across as an embarrassment.
And over everything hung the specter of drugs. The Olympic spirit may once have been about trust and honor. The assumption now, however — and it is a correct one — is that most athletes would use performance enhancers if they could. So the International Olympic Committee has turned itself into a near-police state of aggressive, intrusive testing.
It’s this kind of stuff that makes one worry about the degree to which London 2012 really is different from “Jersey Shore.”
Indeed, consider Bruce Jenner, the decathlon hero of the 1976 games. Today he has deteriorated into a poster boy for bad cosmetic surgery and the stepfather of the loathsome Kardashians. Michael Phelps now toys with the idea of appearing on “Dancing with the Stars.” A harbinger of things to come? Ten or 20 years from now, will today’s Wheaties-box stars have trod that same road, from being the people we hope our kids emulate to the kind we warn them against?
Tom Keane writes weekly for the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.