July 30, 2012

Miguel Angel Centeno is a sociology professor at Princeton, the author of Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America (2003), and the coauthor with Joseph N. Cohen of Global Capitalism (2010). He was born in Cuba and grew up in Erie, Pa.

What’s your earliest Olympic memory?

No doubt it was watching the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. I was 11. Before that I had lived in Cuba, and I don’t think I had even heard of the Olympics. The highlight was clearly the medal ceremony for the 200 meters, where two American athletes [Tommie Smith and John Carlos] raised a Black Power salute. I thought that was really wild.

How excited do you get about the Summer Games? Eager? Hyperventilating? Meh?

I am afraid that much of the magic is gone. First, the onslaught of sports 24/7 makes the Olympics much less unique. There’s no longer the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” and the international stuff is no longer so unique in a globalized world. Also, I no longer feel that these folks are even something like amateurs. They train all the time, look like superheroes, and are just too damn good.

Which events do you particularly enjoy watching? 

I still enjoy the track and field, and swimming. I also love the “weird” events like archery and Greco-Roman wrestling. It will be fun to watch on the BBC as opposed to American TV. (I’m in Korea for the summer.) I hope there will be fewer sob pieces about the third-seeded American pole vaulter.

Are there any sports you watch only during the Olympics?

Really the only time I even pay attention to sports is the World Cup and the Olympics. The international razzle-dazzle is cool. I still like the little-boy aspects of hearing the different anthems.

If you ran the International Olympic Committee, what sport would you add/get rid of? What rule would you change?

I have always thought equestrian and yachting were a bit much (not to mention classist). If I were the head of the IOC, I would: a) fire 95 percent of the administration for corruption, and b) try to recreate some spirit of “normal people” doing the events as opposed to specialists.

What do you think of NBC's Olympic coverage? Or do you watch the Olympics in Spanish?

The jingoism of the US coverage can be a bit much. Too much “Stars and Stripes Forever” for my taste.

What athletes will you be rooting for?

Wish I knew some. I always root for folks like, say, Uzbek javelin throwers and Costa Rican archers. The smaller and more obscure, the better. The Afghanistan water polo team should be ready to compete in 2016, and I will save all my support for them.

Other than the United States, which countries do you cheer for?

I cheer for the underdogs, whether national or individual.

So what did you think in 1972 when Teófilo Stevenson and two other Cuban boxers won gold medals?

I loved Teófilo! But I had to be quiet about liking the Cuban boxers or the kids in Erie would have beat me up at school!

Overall, are the Olympics a good thing, or a waste of time and money? An instrument of peace or of nationalist zeal?

Waaayyy too much money. Atlanta destroyed it with Coca-Colaization. I wish we could bring it down a few notches and enjoy it with less bombastic BS. I do, however, miss all that Cold War stuff about competing ideologies, East German swimmers, and biased judging!

If you could have a ticket to one Olympic event in London, what would it be?

India vs. Pakistan in field hockey [the countries are in separate brackets, so they couldn’t play each other until the semifinal round] or anything pitting Germany against Greece.

“Olympic Talk with Miguel Angel Centeno,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “War Games,” the July 30, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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