Geography 101 (The Olympic Games)

The Winter Olympics have opened in Sochi, Russia (probably not a newsflash for most of you) and like many across the world, I am watching the festivities and events when I can.

As a sports fan, there are a lot of events I enjoy following whether it’s the summer or winter games. However, perhaps my favorite part of the Olympics, and what I remember most about them growing up, is the opening ceremony.

There’s the flashy pyrotechnics, the hundreds of dancers in costume, and the formality lighting the Olympic torch, but what I like the most is the fact that an Olympics opening ceremony showcases the world.

First, there is the host country. A chance for that country to remind the world of its proud heritage, and showcase that country’s history and achievements. For Russia, there was ballet, War and Peace, and an act that featured lots of red costumes. (Of course when you get to write your own history, sometimes the nastier parts tend to get glossed over. Yes, Russia decided not to focus on labor camps during the Stalin era, and nor has the United States ever had an opening ceremony talking about the American Indian wars, segregation, or the U.S. Civil War.)

Besides the celebration of the host country’s culture, the ceremony also features the parade of Olympians, representing all the countries who sent athletes to the games. And this parade is my favorite part—though to be honest, I prefer Summer Olympics, when there are far more countries represented.

And, of course, in the Winter Olympics, the represented countries are self-selected by the fact that most of them are in Europe, or at least a place that generally gets snow (though I give nods to Venezuela, Thailand, and others). I like the opening ceremony best when it is an actual cross-section of the world and the best part for me is seeing the diversity of countries and cultures walk by.

The only other place where I can think there is this wide representation of people from all over the world in one place is at the UN general assembly. But let’s be honest: the general assembly generally makes for pretty boring television and the dark-colored suits can get pretty monotonous. Olympians, however, are there to highlight their culture and heritage (and, are also generally better-looking that ambassadors to the UN…).

Side tangent: I am not saying that Olympians are better dressed than their diplomatic counterparts. The Winter Olympics especially feature costumes are just a tad ridiculous (this year the prize unequivocally goes to the sweaters worn by the U.S. team, though the long coats sported by Taiwan provided some competition and I for one can’t wait to see the Norwegian curling team’s outfits in action).

I love cultures, geography, and knowing more about the world, and the opening ceremonies of the Olympics give everyone a good geography lesson. For most U.S. Americans, the parade of nations is a good reminder of how many countries there are in the world, and how many countries you can’t quite place on a map when the first hear the name.

“Moldova!” the announcer shouts in the three languages. You just sort of stare at the TV. You’re pretty sure that isn’t a real country. It’s just one of those made up ones in Bond movies when Eastern European villains threaten to nuke the world, or the standard stand-in for fictional long-lost royalty (in fact, wasn’t that the country Anne Hathaway became an heir to in The Princess Diaries?).

You take a look at the athletes and the flag they carry. You must have seen it before (after all, you watch all the opening ceremonies in the Olympics), but it doesn’t even ring a bell. It reminds you more of the made-up flags stitched together to wave at soccer matches.

So you pull out your atlas, or—more likely—your smartphone, and Google “Moldova.” There it is, neatly labeled in eastern Europe.

And there is the Moldovan (Moldovinite?) athletes proudly marching in, knowing that you probably know nothing about their country, but excited by the fact that now, at least, you’ve heard of their country. And know that yes, it is an actual place.

I pride myself in being pretty good at world geography and can place a country fairly close to its actual border on a world map. But even for me, the opening ceremonies are a good reminder of places that usually don’t make the nightly news, a reminder of how big and diverse this world is.

And a reminder of how much more of this world I need to travel to see.

So invite more bobsledders from Jamaica, more skiers from Togo (that would be west Africa, folks), and more lugers from Tonga (South Pacific) and let us all learn just a little more about the world we live in.

Let the games begin!


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