Through an Olympic Lens, Glimpses of a New World


July 29, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Clinton's down, Clinton's up; the global economy is healthy, the global economy is sick. We usually sense our condition through the kaleidoscopic prism of political economics, wondering whether prosperity is really just around the corner, whether peace will hold.

But try reflecting through a less abstract lens: sports. You can see pieces of the new world, changing before your eyes, this fortnight, in Barcelona and on NBC. The Olympics are the medium, and some of the loosely linked messages are:

Commercialization: It is said that the games have been ''commercialized,'' and that's supposed to be bad. It's not.

One thing ''commercialized'' means is that the whole world is watching. Michael Jordan's dunk is seen by a television audience of 3 billion! Those people then buy products hawked on television. The advertising pays for the broadcast. Commerce buys the technology that allows more people to see the grandeur of international athletics.

A global culture: Because everyone is watching television, a new global popular culture is a-borning. Broadly defined, that includes the Olympics.

In turn, that televised popular culture is the medium that further extends global consumerism. More each passing year, the products sold to the people who watch television are global brand-name products: Nikes, Reeboks, Toyotas, Apples, MacDonalds and ''Coca Cola: Shared Around the World.''

A global culture means that people everywhere are united by many common experiences. It is said, probably correctly, that people with shared experiences and values are less likely to hate each other or kill each other in wars. We shall see.

Americanization: The new global popular culture is dominated by America. That is apparent in movies, television, magazines, books and music. It is less obvious, but also true, in the Olympics (regardless of whether America wins the most medals).

It is no accident that the media superstars of the Olympics are the ''Dream Team,'' 12 exquisitely talented American basketball trillionaires. For good or for ill, people everywhere are fascinated by the American dream.

Basketball, an exciting American invention, is expected soon to become the world's most popular sport, replacing soccer, a boring sport for foot fetishists. Baseball, America's own boring sport, now an official Olympic contest, spreads rapidly, and is committed in 90 countries. American-style NFL football (brutal, but not boring) is now played professionally in Europe and seen on global television.

Meritocracy: The American idea in popular culture is that individuals can shape their own destiny. Competitive athletics, on a global stage, is the epitome of that notion. It is the opposite of what has plagued the world: aristocracy, inherited privilege, classism. The Olympic medal does not go to the aristocrat but, to use the Olympic slogan, to the person who is ''swifter, higher, stronger.''

American-style individualism transcends not only class, but gender and race. As we see each day on our screens, women in sport are gaining great prominence. It is the best kind of feminism, the non-quota kind, merit-based, with victory keyed not to proportionalism but to a hot cross-court backhand. Most of the Dreams are African-Americans, selected only on merit.

The communist collapse: You don't see the hammer and sickle on those flags anymore. The disappearance of the Evil Empire leads to more market consumerism, to more democracy, and to more people seeking to shape their own destiny outside state direction.

Communism fell in some large measure because of a document now on display in the American domes at the Seville Expo. It is the Bill of Rights, which confirmed and announced the dawn of modern American-style individualism, today the most revolutionary force in the world.

There you have it: global trade, market economics, democracy, pluralism, technology, competitiveness. It is not a bad recipe for peace and prosperity, which may be just around the corner.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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