That Four-Year Itch

THEY both have their roots in the dim past of semi-barbarous ancient Greece. Both come around every four years in this part of the world. And both are regularly the focus of outlandish media hype.

Namely; the Olympics and the U.S. Presidential elections.

Of course, in the time of Sophocles the pan-Hellenic games that would later inspire the international Olympics and the primitive direct democracy that would later inspire the American political process were relatively undeveloped forms. Neither synchronized swimming nor the advanced telecommunications equipment necessary to broadcast it around the world had been invented during the Golden Age of Athens, for example. Nor did the ancient Greeks have the advantage of televised minidebates. They were a primitive and unhappy people indeed.

Though the intervening millenia have changed mankind in many ways--through the invention of monotheism, the printing press and the bra, for example--none of these changes can match the revolutions wrought by America on the institutions of sport and democracy, not only as an innovator, but as a disseminator. No country can claim to be the birthplace of so many world-popular sports; football, baseball and basketball are just a few that enjoy popularity in at least one foreign country (if one counts Canada as a foreign country). Nor can any nation country claim to have forcibly installed democracy in so many formerly deprived nations.

THE highest innovations in sports and politics, however, have been reached right here on the home soil of the U.S. in those quadrennial massmedia feeding frenzies. Whether it be through endless, meaningless commentary on unimportant happenings in the early stages of the Democratic primary, or in gloss, hype, and up-close-and-personal interviews with sports celebrities who weren't famous yesterday and won't be tomorrow, every four years the national media must strive after a task worthy of the Creator himself: the creation of something out of nothingness.


At this point, we should perhaps head off one possible criticism of our argument: that the Olympics are technically an international event. But if the Olympics aren't wholly American, how does one explain the fact that dancing with ribbons and sled-riding are both featured sports? Only in the Land of TV could such things be possible.

One of the reasons that both Olympics and elections have achieved such enormous cultural success is that they have been synchronized with a galactic quirk which dictates that every four years there must be an extra day in the calendar. These extra-long years, called leap years, are perfect for cramming in one whole extra day of commercials onto the bandwagon of monster events. Furthermore, by staging the Olympics in the same year as Presidential elections, each feeds on the hysteria generated by the other until the American public is convinced that something important is actually happening.

OF course, the Olympics and the Presidential elections are not alike in every aspect. In both cases the winners are determined by a panel of judges; but in the Olympics these delegates are chosen by the Olympic Committee, while in the elections they are chosen by the Republican National Committee. Foreigners are not allowed to enter the Presidential elections; in the Olympics they can, and usually win. Presidential candidates can be paid for their work, but are not supposed to pay others for endorsements; Olympic athletes cannot be paid for their work, but can be paid for endorsements.

While it is unclear what the future holds for these traditions, certain trends do seem to be emerging. On the Olympic front, more and more ridiculous, entertainment-oriented sports will make their appearance. Expect to see more along the lines of synchronized swimming--maybe synchronized dancing, Rockettes-style. On the election front, more and more ridiculous, entertainment-oriented candidates will make their appearance. Expect to see more along the lines of Gary Hart and Pat Robertson.

Perhaps some day in the distant future the Olympics and the U.S. presidential elections will, through the forces of convergent evolution, have merged into a single entity, with aspirants after the nation's highest office judged on the best Las Vegas-type dance act.