The Missing Olympian

Grace Cossington Smith was an Australian artist born in 1892. Some of her notable works include paintings of Sydney harbor like The Bridge in Curve. A beautiful image of an unfitted bridge leading toward the sun and full of bright colors, the image evokes a sense optimism, hope, and progress.

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But a lesser-known image, and one which we shall employ as a backdrop for our expose today, is called the Lacquer Room. Once again, the bright colors are pre-eminent. Red chairs speckle the foreground, the canvas lacks the width (apparently) to portray the entire scene. Tables are cut off, chairs are cut off and even people are cut off as the painting simply cannot capture the magnitude of the moment.

But one thing is missing. If you look closely, there is no shadow in the image. Surely some shadowing could give the image more depth and more gravitas. And yet there is none. There are a few areas of darkness but no shadow in the true sense of the word.

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And that is similar to what we see at the Olympics this year. we lament the absence of star professional athletes- the ones with the big sponsorship deals and the ones who have been winning on the pro circuits over the last four years. No LeBron, no Spieth. No Sharapova or McIlroy. Soccer’s Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi will both be no-shows.

Isn’t the Olympics where everyone wants to be? Isn’t it the pinnacle of sport where young children run and pass and kick and shoot in hopes of someday making it to that grandest of stages? What must go through the minds of these athletes that they would undermine the integrity of such a spectacular event of global harmony and athletics?

Many of our more cynical readers will surely have answers to these questions. Indeed, they are meant to be rhetorical. For we know why these athletes don’t compete; it conflicts with their day job. If Rooney was injured at the tournament how would his club team feel? Why should Spieth travel all the way down to Rio in order to take part in yet another golf tournament; one for which there is essentially no prize money or ranking points or other perks on the line?

So has the integrity of competition at the Olympics been undermined by these absentees? Are the fields so depleted that the Olympics has simply become a game of “the best of the rest”; the place where washed up journeymen go for their 15 minutes of fame and an NBC puff profile piece?

In a word, yes. We don’t see the finest athletes who are leaders on a pro tour (other than the events with a smaller fan base like swimming and track and field).

But this is not a bad thing; in fact, it is good. For the Olympics were instituted for amateurs and that is how it should remain.  The Olympics are not about the athletes but the events; not the competition, but the story. We see people third by their name and second by the country they represent but first and foremost as Olympians.

So when we look at the Lacquer Room, we don’t see the absence of the shadow but we look at the vibrancy of the color. The lack of depth and gravitas is appropriate because we can view the image simply as it is; a portrait not of humans but of such tremendous humanity that it runs off the page.

So we raise a glass to you – Olympians.

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(Image credit: Wikipedia, Australia Art Gallery)

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