Wednesday, September 7, 2016

And still catching up...

Thoughts inspired by Michelle Obama's speech at the 2016 National Democratic Convention:

Cracking the glass ceiling takes time
There were lots of good speeches at the 2016 National Democratic Convention, but it was Michelle Obama’s speech that stayed with me. I took an important message from the First Lady’s speech that has little to do with the American Presidential election.

Obama told a story that was both personal and social.  As she talked about her history and that of Hillary Clinton’s, she was also telling the story of a nation.  She framed the nation’s story in terms of the contemporary metaphor of the glass ceiling.  When people persevere through adversity, through the “lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation”, they change society for the better.  Because of the cumulative efforts of others, she, a black woman “wake(s) up every morning in a house built by slaves”, and today’s children  “now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States”. 

Even as recently as a decade ago, not everyone assumed that a black man or a woman could become the president of the United States.  In his 2006 release “Lookin’ For a Leader”, Neil Young crooned, “Someone walks among us/ And I hope he hears the call/And maybe it’s a woman/Or a black man after all.”  Young expressed hope that a change in the status quo was not only possible but also imminent.

Changing the status quo takes time. Glass ceilings exist in all sorts of places. Unless you happen to be especially privileged or lucky, chances are that you or someone you know has bumped their head trying to break through. I do not have to think too long or hard to come up with examples from my experience.  

When we were advocating for equal access in sport for girls in our area, we frequently ran into barriers. It was tough sledding. Each successive barrier caused a bruise, but steeled our determination. One summer, we banged our heads harder than usual.

Organizers of a summer hockey camp refused to enrol our daughter simply because she was a girl; it was not a question of skill or ability. To say the least, it was frustrating, not to mention discriminatory.  But, it was also part of the process of making cracks.  Today, attitudes and practices have changed to the point that the successor school lists a female collegiate hockey player as an instructor on its website.

Changing the status quo takes honesty, decency, conviction and perseverance. It takes a united effort on the part of others. The First Lady spoke about the importance of modelling these principles for the next generation. When she shared her family’s motto, “when they go low, we go high”, she reminded me of my own up bringing.  

I can still hear my mother’s voice advising me ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ when I wanted to get even with someone.  The high road is the best defense and the best offence against those who vainly try to stop the forward momentum of change. Some patches are not meant to hold.

Even though the purpose of Michelle Obama’s speech was to endorse Hillary Clinton, and was therefore political in nature, the First Lady’s remarks transcended the contemporary American political scene.  For me, the key message was this.  Like a nick in a windshield from a small piece of gravel, the tiniest crack has the potential to spread. So whether one is a politician or an ordinary Joe, our actions matter.  Our individual stories have a ripple effect. Together we write the story of our communities and our country.

Thoughts on the Rio 2016 Olympic Games:

I was tired of Rio 2016 even before the opening ceremonies.

There was way too much coverage of everything that was wrong and little of what was right.  The only good news story that I can recall prior to the opening ceremonies was the creation of Team Refugee, and once the Olympics began, Team Refugee virtually disappeared from view.  The “trending stories” about Rio 2016 focused on controversy, scandal, or bad news.  

John Steinbeck hit the nail on the head when he said,  “We value virtue but do not discuss it.  The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp and the cheat.”   This fits the media coverage and our taste when it came to Olympic news.

Here are a few examples of the bad news associated with the Rio 2016 Games.

Brazil spent vast amounts of money to host the games when a majority of its citizens live in poverty.  Bribery played a huge role in the awarding of contracts to construct Olympic venues.  Politicians and public servants lined their pockets. The rich got richer. 

The polluted waters of Guanabara Bay raised concerns. There were fears that athletes and visitors would contract water-borne diseases. There was less concern about the citizens who live with this reality daily.

Days before the games were set to begin, the Australians refused to stay in sub-standard, unfinished dormitories.  Accepting bribes apparently did not ensure that a good product would be delivered on time.

The state sanctioned Russian doping scandal broke.  The International Olympic Committee made a controversial decision regarding the participation of Russian athletes and passed the buck to the various sports federations. Russian officials denied and scorned the McLaren report.  Fans booed some of the Russian athletes who did get to compete.

Part way through the two-week games, Brazilian police arrested Patrick Hickey of the International Olympic Committee on allegations of illegal ticket selling.  

American swimmer Ryan Lochte, who has won twelve Olympic medals, embellished an incident, saying he was robbed while a gun was pointed at his head.  The fallout from his dissembling lasted for days.  Lochte may have apologized, but the affair demonstrated the arrogance of privilege. 

The Brazilian women’s synchronized dive team made headlines for a so called “sex scandal”.  The night before their competition, one of the divers banished her teammate from their room to clear the way for a tryst. 

It is all so human.  In every instance we see the imperfection of our common human nature. But for some reason, we expect better from those involved with running, hosting and competing in the Olympics Games.  We naively expect that the athletic excellence on display at an Olympics will automatically translate into virtuous and exemplary behavior from everyone involved.  We are disappointed and disillusioned when the flaws of humanity overshadow the lofty ideals of the Olympic movement. 

I had to look hard to find good news stories that were not focused solely on athletic performance. One story in particular caught my eye because it showed the more admirable side of human nature.  New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin and American runner Abby D’Agostino exemplified the Olympic spirit of selflessness and sportsmanship during a 5000-meter race.  Hamblin fell, causing D’Agostino to fall and sustain an injury. The women helped each other up. Both completed the race. They received the International Fair Play Award, a prestigious honour that has only been awarded 17 times in Olympic history.

One of the goals of the Olympic movement is to put sport at the service of society.  Sometimes, the goal gets twisted. Instead of sport at the service of society, we see examples of sport at the service of self.  

We should not be surprised that the best and worst of human behaviour made an appearance at the Rio 2016 Games.  At the end of day, the Olympic games are a microcosm of human nature with its mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.

No comments: