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Why do I watch the Olympics?

Why do I watch the Olympics? I don’t watch a lot but I watch some. Why do I watch any? Here are people who have spent an enormous portion of their spare time learning to do something that has no intrinsic value except to compete against other people who have done the same thing. What kind of a dream is that, really? It’s not like someone’s dream to be a nurse or a teacher or a baker. Those involve serving others. The Olympics involve serving yourself.

I know, they’re supposed to be representing their country but when the American men’s gymnastic team wins a silver medal, how does it make me better off? OK, I was rooting for the Americans rather than the Romanians. But why? If the Romanians took the silver and China the bronze, what does it say about America? Nothing. It’s not like the old days when the Soviets used professionals in hockey and basketball and stole the gold in 1972. Then winning meant something about America. Sort of, anyway. It’s still not like leading the world in Nobel Prizes or charitable giving. So why should I care at all? But I do. Not as much as I did once, but I still care. Some would say it’s a sign of emotional immaturity or mindless jingoism. I suspect it’s something more primal that is not easily explained.

Sure there’s something beautiful about being physically fit and doing something graceful. That’s part of the appeal. But for better or worse, I think most of the appeal is the voyeurism of emotion and drama. If they didn’t keep score, the whole thing would be a lot less interesting. Competition that is zero-sum is a lot more compelling and a lot less important than economic competition that produces net benefits. That’s why the Olympics get better ratings than a news story on the evolution of the retail business over the last 50 years.

Here are Kerri Strug’s second thoughts.

Here’s an essay I wrote trying to understand why we care so much about sports.


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