I am in love with the four Olympic rings. I am in love, in particular, with the one that did not open, last Friday, during the opening ceremonies in Sochi, Russia. That closed ring shows the incomplete work of such gatherings, of those who have been harmed to make them happen, of those always left out. And how our ideals are never ideal.
Over the past weeks, we have heard of animals put to death to make Sochi more acceptable to the world. We have heard of local towns made worse off, due to their nearness to the Olympic flame, their local landscapes pitted with the extraction of minerals and resources, the billions gathered, spent and missing. LGBT peoples in Russia have asked us to reconsider what we support when we support the Olympics, as they are arrested and beaten for trying to live open and free lives. We have also witnessed the consequences of Vladimir Putin’s rule, as his internal battles threaten the lives of attendees and athletes. And now, a people, the Circassians, expelled in a 19th century genocide before there was even a word for “genocide,” are struggling to have their voices heard, even though the opening ceremonies and the coverage of the 2014 Olympic games has ignored their millennia-long existence in, and violent expulsion from, Sochi.
We like stories that make us happy. We like adversity that gets its reward, of falls from grace and redemption received. We like everything to work out in the end.
Despite our wishes, every bright light casts a shadow, and the Olympic flame has its dark side. We seldom ask what prices were paid to manifest the Olympic spirit and who has to pay them. History, after all, has only the voice it is given, and it does not bode well that this history is overseen by American corporations and a Russian autarch. Sadly, Sochi is just one example, and I could think of others, where history is rewritten so that we can all feel the Olympic spirit more purely.
And yet, no narrative is so loud that no other words can be heard. We are lucky at the grand breadth of life, broad enough that, even with such abuse, violence and power, there is still room for justice. At the beginning of this Olympics, when everything went off without a hitch, one of the Olympic rings refused to fully open. One ring, the last, remained closed. Without it, the fireworks that were poised to fly once all of the rings opened could not ignite. All five rings had to be opened before the climax could occur. For one moment, the celebration and self-congratulations paused, and the majority had to wait for the minority, even if the wait was only a heartbeat’s length.
I have come to love that symbol of the closed ring. I like to think of those whom that closed ring represents, disconnected from the other circles, all drained of their rainbow colors that night. I like to think that it speaks to the adversity and courage of those we do not hear about, instead of the scripted adversity of our well-paid and well financed heroes that we blow up larger than life on our screens and that, despite the challenges portrayed, make us feel even more complacent than before. Such irony is great and consequential, yet if we use our imaginations, we might see in that ring the LGBT protestors clubbed to the ground by police in Russian cities. We can hear those whose histories have been buried on the coast of the Black Sea. And we may sense the cost of ideals that fall so short of their promise.
Justice is never fully secured; peace remains a horizon. Life is suffering, and our wills are fallen. But we can do better, if we pay attention to those moments that our symbols, so carefully crafted, and our rituals, so carefully orchestrated, open wide, and then…wink at us. A closed ring, a shut eye, to catch our own eyes, and to make us pause. In those moments, perhaps something is happening. Maybe our creations embody an unforeseen and unacknowledged agency that silently accompanies the more overt ideals we give them. They may reflect not only our intentions but our omissions, and without our willing it, make us see that which we would otherwise refuse to see.
We can only hope that not everything will always move lock-step with our will to look away and that sometimes our creations will turn and wink at us, and more fully manifest the full dimensions – the length, width and depth – of our justice.