Faster Higher Stronger Stranger Emptier, Oh Jeez

Historical nonfiction. I've got the Fever. Plenty of medals in the back pocket already.

Whatever Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus’ faults—and there were many, many faults—he really loved the Olympics. It’s one of few things he and I have in common. Though we might not speak the same language, and might have lived millennia apart, and might have some conflicting views on matricide, fratricide, tyranny, neckbeards, debaucherous golden pleasure palaces, and, umm, city-wide arson, I believe our respective Olympic Fevers could overcome any steeples or hurdles or whatever track and field analogy takes your fancy. 

Nero might not really grasp the steeplechase, though. Or water polo. Or 50km Racewalking. And I just don’t think anyone in any time or place will ever truly make sense of the pole vault. It was mainly discus and wrestling in Nero’s day.

The popularity of the Games was suffering under Rome’s Mediterranean occupation, but The Ancient Olympics—originally a religious celebration of Zeus—was still chugging along in 67AD. Nero wanted to have a go. And fair enough. Me too. On his final tour of Greece, the young and increasingly deranged Emperor demanded that the famously, strictly four-year Olympic cycle be bent to fit his schedule. 

Nero’s big problem—though there were many, many problems—was that he wasn’t an athlete. He was an aristocrat. A lyre-playing pretty boy. He didn’t have much hope in the running, or long jump, or various brutal Old World combat sports. But so what? Immaterial! Egotistical tyrants are very good at making lemonade out of the premium lemons at their disposal. Nero decreed that singing and poetry would be added to the Olympic program—somewhere either side of the kickboxing, I guess.

If you believe the historian Suetonius, the young Emperor also competed in the four-horse chariot race with ten of his finest steeds. This is a good idea on paper. It’s a bad idea everywhere else. Nero had approximately six too many horses to negotiate the first bend, and he stacked it, couldn’t finish, nearly died. But so what? Immaterial! He declared himself the winner, saying that he absolutely would have won were it not for the small detail of his crash. Lemonade

This is the cool thing about being a despotic Emperor. You can fail and lose and write (presumably) shit poetry, and nonetheless still come away with a great many olive wreaths. 

The Games of the XXXII Modern Olympiad start today. They actually kind of started on Wednesday; for reasons known only to tournament organisers, there has already been some preliminary archery, softball, and soccer. Landlocked Zimbabwe’s only rower was eliminated in the heats of the men’s singles sculls this morning—he’ll carry their flag at the Opening Ceremony tonight. 

The Games of the XXII Olympiad will be unique. As in Berlin, 1936, or Mexico City, 1968, these Olympics will be full of moments that encapsulate our times. No crowds. No hugging and cheering. No SNEEZING. And the winningest athletes will have to adorn their own necks with modern-day olive wreaths. 

Though I’m right up at the Emperor Nero end of the Olympic Fever spectrum, I know The Games don’t really have the powers of global harmony that The Games’ own marketing collateral would have us believe. The Olympics are liable to leave a trail of economic and environmental destruction in their wake. They have a tendency to highlight, without actually fixing, systemic racial, gender, and social issues. Corruption in the IOC is almost as bad as it is in FIFA. Plus there’s doping scandals, the twisting of moments of transcendent physical beauty into a commercial product, and the overplayed myth that, if they can just run and swim fast enough, these vainglorious superjocks might somehow use the Olympic Spirit to fix the many tangible catastrophes that are creeping towards us from all sides.

For me, the Olympics is important because of the feelings it can give you through a television screen. 

Like how it feels to witness Simone Biles do things that literally no human being has ever done before. Like how it feels to watch and become completely invested in the intricacies of a bizarre sport you absolutely didn’t care about before it came on. Like how it feels to know that most of the eyeballs in the world will, together, watch some vainglorious superjocks run 100 metres and believe that it’s important. 

For all of Emperor Nero’s faults, and there were many, many faults, he understood this magic of the Games. That’s something we haven’t lost on the journey from Ancient Greece to Tokyo.

And just some admin before I go—since I can’t be the fire warden, I’m trying to cement my place as the Olympics Guy at work.

If you’d like to read another Olympics-themed post that you may have missed from last year, here’s my story about the beauty of badminton: Who the Hell is Minton and Why’s He/She So Bad?

Every second of the Olympic Games will be streaming, for free, on Channel 7’s dedicated website. A comprehensive schedule of the whole event is available here. Weekend highlights, in my opinion, include:

  • Fencing gold medal bouts from 8:30 p.m. Saturday night.

  • Field hockey - Aus men at 10:30 a.m. Saturday and Aus women 11a.m. Sunday

  • Australian women’s water polo 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

  • Beach volleyball basically all day

  • The Boomers 11a.m. Sunday 

I would also strongly recommend Roy and HG’s daily half hour round up of the highs and lows of the Games.

Olympics carefully, fellow citizens.