Discovering Culture Through the Olympics

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Since I was a child growing up in Minnesota, the Olympics have captivated me. The melodic foreign names (Surya Bonaly, for example), the vibrant flags, the robust strains of the medalists’ national anthems and the inspiring, personal stories of athletes’ struggles and victories all provided windows to different parts of the world. As a young girl peering into those windows, I cherished each glimpse of cultures so different from my own.
As I grew older and began to travel the world, first with my parents and sister and then on my own as a young adult, my interest in the Olympics flourished. When the Japanese team entered the Olympic arena, I would cheer and think of my dear friends in Tokyo. When the French flag appeared, nostalgia would take hold, as I fondly remembered the years I had spent in France. The more I traveled, the more I became invested in the athletes from other countries—these international ambassadors became extensions of my cultural associations and understandings.
I visited Greece for the first time in 2002. At that time, Athens was preparing to host the 2004 Summer Olympics and building permanent and semi-permanent structures. Almost every tourist store carried Olympics t-shirts and paraphernalia. As I stood in Panathinaiko Stadium, which held the first modern Olympic games in 1896, I was overcome by history. The idea that men and women from all corners of the globe have gathered and competed in times of peace and war (the Olympics were, however, canceled in 1916 due to World War I and in 1940 and 1944, due to World War II) for over 100 years is incredibly inspiring.
While watching the Olympics, I’ve never felt a particular allegiance to the U.S. any more than an allegiance to another country I’ve lived in or visited. The Olympics have provided me with an impetus for cultural discovery, and this process has broken down preconceived notions, helping me to see the realities of other cultures. Through the Olympics and my travels, I have a better understanding of what it means to be global citizen—someone who is curious and respectful, someone who considers not only the local but the global as well, and, in my case, someone who cheers for another country’s team because she feels a connection to a certain athlete or culture.
Throughout the years, I have used the Olympics as a vehicle for cultural education. The 2012 London Summer Olympics will fall at the tail end of a French course I am teaching at a local college. What better way to reinforce the usefulness of French than to provide an example of its global reach—every announcement at Olympic events is given in both French and English. We will also discuss athletes from France and other Francophone countries, using them as departure points for cultural exploration.
This year, I have yet another reason to be excited about the Olympics. It is the first time my one-year-old daughter will watch them with me. Though we limit TV in our house, I think I can make an exception for the opening ceremony. This summer will mark the beginning of my little global citizen glimpsing the world through the Olympics, and I could not be more excited for her. Perhaps, like her mama, it will lay the foundation for her curiosity about world cultures. As the Olympic torch journeys across London, my hope is that the flame of curiosity will ignite in her mind and continue to burn brightly as she travels the world.

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