I don’t know about you but I love the Olympics, especially the summer games. Thanks to technological advances, my family and I have choices about how to keep up with this mega-event, including recording the whole thing so we can pick and choose how to watch what we want from it. So, when the night was quiet, I gazed at the much-anticipated opening ceremonies for the 2012 competitions—every minute of it. I even watched most of the commercials, which collectively broke records in the amounts of money being spent. I noted the ad for The Dark Knight Rises movie, and was relieved at the short, tasteful version I saw in the wake of the recent tragedy in Aurora, CO.
Over the hours of the broadcast as I was captivated by the opening pageantry, I was duly impressed by the colors, lights, activity, music, comedy and drama of it all. The character of “James Bond,” played by Daniel Craig and a body double for the Queen jumping out of a plane? The comic antics of “Mr. Bean,” played by Rowan Atkinson, against the musical background of a classic masterpiece? And, then there was the recurring and moving inclusion of young people of all ages, through choirs, dancing numbers, including a particularly captivating segment paying homage to literature and fantasy. All of it and more presented a visual feast for viewers, and some of these pictures from the London-based Daily Mail newspaper can attest:
However, after a while, I began to think of the writings of Franz Fanon. Fanon (1925-1961), a brilliant psychologist and scholar who was born in Algeria and educated in France, wrote incisively about the colonial European and Anglo legacies that brought both prosperity to their nations but turmoil to those they conquered. England, the core of the once ubiquitous British Empire, showcased part of that history in its multiethnic performances throughout the night.
Even the parade of nations, that traditional processional of participating nations, highlighted this past as former colonies—Canada, Australia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, the United States and countless more English-speaking countries—participated as sovereign nations in their own right.
So, it was interesting to see how the “narrative” of England’s historical past played out in 2012. The arc of the story moved from showing English roots in an agrarian society, progressing through an Industrial revolution and arriving at a very 21st –century peak of technological achievement. In this story, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, reigned like a rock star (encouragement for nerds everywhere).
But omitted was the legacy of African slavery and the military-driven occupation of nations literally across the globe that fueled the prosperity contributing to the Industrial Revolution, upon which so much of the good fortunes of Western civilizations depend. Fanon wrote searingly about this legacy and for the first time, gave voice to psychological and social scars left upon the colonized through this experience. A foundation in his honor has established a Fanon Foundation website, and one page in English gives good insight into the complexity of his life and work, although some parts of this site are under construction still.
Should the Olympics have put a spotlight on these complex issues? Absolutely not! Should we ourselves know and remember these issues even during a highly entertaining event? Absolutely!
But in this “after” post-colonial era, we need to know that the multiculturalism we benefit from, and sometimes celebrate, did not happen accidentally, but through the pain and sacrifice of our often contentious ancestors. We need to resist the temptation to paint our shared history with a happy tableau of diversity without being attuned to how our varied selves have come together.
And, we need to look at current events, such as the Syrian rebellion and other “Arab Spring” movements partly through the lens of post-colonialism, because we will not understand anything completely without this measuring stick. To do this, we all have to support education at every level in our schools that venture to bring difficult truths to our students. We have to allow this without castigating such discussions as unpatriotic, communistic, or erroneous.
In the meantime, I will continue to follow the Olympics through the comprehensive coverage NBC and others will offer. I will celebrate, as we all should, this exceptional time and space the Olympics provides when we can both root for country, yet celebrate the achievements of our global neighbors. I think the symbolism of the torch’s lighting before the parade of nations showed it best. Seven athletes with individual torches ignited seven more, which artfully spread through an array of over 50 more combustible lamps on the floor. Then, on some invisible cue, they all rose in the air, and together formed one flaming ball.
We all come from different places, but together, we are one world. One planet. One destiny.