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Bolt of Fun

08/22/08 5:55PM By John Fox
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(HOST) As the Olympics wind down, writer, anthropologist and commentator John Fox reflects on a basic human element that's been all but missing in the Beijing games.

(FOX) One of my favorite quotes from The Onion, the satirical "fake" news outlet, is a horoscope for my sign, Scorpio, which reads: "There will soon come a time when your happiness depends on where and whether an enormous man catches a ball." As the Olympics draw to a close, I'm thinking they summed up my past two weeks pretty darn well. Much as I'll miss tasting the thrill of victory and suffering the agony of defeat from the comfort of my overstuffed couch, I'm looking forward to reclaiming my evenings and returning to more lighthearted entertainment, like "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."

OK, I exaggerate a little. But for all the extraordinary displays of athletic prowess, the shattering of record after record, the epic national rivalries, there's been one element in short supply at these Olympics that's at the root of all sports: the element of play. Play is arguably the most basic and primal human activity. We evolved as humans through play, become adults through play, learn motor skills by playing with balls. As the writer Diane Ackerman has put it, "play is a refuge from ordinary life, a sanctuary of the mind." In its purest state, a child skipping stones off a lake, say, play is an end unto itself.

If that's true, then much of what I saw on display in Beijing looked and felt a whole lot more like work than anything resembling play. Take Michael Phelps, who mechanically broke record after record in his march toward eight gold medals. When asked how he felt afterwards, he responded clinically, "Everything was accomplished." Those sound more like words you'd expect to hear from your accountant than from a young man who's just crossed the natural boundary between man and fish!

Or take Huang Yubin, the stern head coach of China's gymnastics team, who threatened before the games even began, "If we win only one gold again, I will jump off the highest building." Whoa, what ever happened to, "Win or lose, it's how you play the game"?

The reality, of course, is that the only things really at play in the Olympics and in most major sports competitions these days are major revenue, national pride, billion dollar product endorsements, signing bonuses, and so on. That's why Usain Bolt, aka the fastest man on earth, is such a marvel, a "freak of nature" as he's been called. In the 100-meter race he broke all the rules. Twenty meters before the finish line, he did the unthinkable, coming out of his running posture for an early celebration, high-stepping and thumping his chest toward a stunning 9.69-second world record.

Of course, the sports wonks soon jumped on the fact that he could have shaved a tenth or more of a second off if he hadn't horsed around, if he'd been more serious.

Bolt's response? A shrug and a mischievous grin. "I was having fun. That's just me." That's just most of us, actually. Thanks for the reminder, Usain.
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