Meeting the precipice

From my Sundance condominium outside Park City, I can see the ski jump track where athletes from around the world launched themselves to Olympic glory in 2002. I sit in the Jacuzzi on the condominium deck, and try to put myself in those skiers’ place: thousands of miles from home, hurtling towards a precipice. The landing is not visible at takeoff.

The detritus of the Salt Lake City Olympics are everywhere – roadside abstractions in brushed steel; forgotten “welcome plazas” with sleek banners and award ceremony podiums, empty of medalists now for a decade. The extravaganza that left them behind embodies our nationalist age at its most insidious: identity is neutered and merchandisable, down to the outfits worn by hopeful athletes in the opening ceremony. A bizarre mix of melodrama and competition indulge the dark side of our national pride, while a barrage of imagery and rhetoric cleanses a century of bloodshed and terror from our conscience. Beneath it all, of course, hum the machinations of corporate marketing and profit.

I don’t mean to get carried away – I enjoy a little ice dancing as much as the next guy. What strikes me is that the soaring, sterile aesthetic of the Olympic landscape feels hollow and outmoded, the commemorations turned relics the moment the crowds and camera crews departed. On the drive to my Sundance presentations, I can’t help but think of the thousands of markers and monuments, commemorating forgotten communist triumphs and ideas, now crumbling on remote highway shoulders across the former Eastern Bloc.

Think about it: a decade ago, skiers from the independent, capitalist countries of Slovenia, Poland, and Germany earned medals on the very jump that I now admire from my Utah Jacuzzi. A bit over a decade before that, Germany was divided, Poland belonged to the USSR, and Slovenia was a member of socialist Yugoslavia.

Two decades behind us, the collapse of a political-economic system governing hundreds of millions of people feels like ancient, inevitable history. But whoever tells you that they saw it coming, as drastically, as exhilaratingly, as devastatingly as it did, is lying. The point is that change is only incremental when it reinforces the system as it stands. When it is big, when it is meaningful, it is fast. Last time, we met the changing of the guard with an utter lack of vision, and the result already feels outmoded, quaint and wind-battered on the side of the road. This time around, let us hope to meet the precipice with a little more imagination.