Weekend Reading: The Games Begin

In this weekly roundup, we scour the Web for our favorite long-form magazine and newspaper articles, collecting them here and on Longreads.com and Twitter. This installment focuses on the future of fast food, what it means to be an amateur, and all-things Olympic Games.

The Games begin Friday.     Photo: Quick79/Flickr

"The games are always a wonderful excuse for provocative writing,"

The Games are upon us. Sally Ride, America’s first astronaut, has died. And its been 43 years since Apollo 11 returned from the moon. For the last weekend of July, there’s certainly a lot to be thinking about.

Let’s start with the Games. At the peak of every Olympic cycle, someone writes an interesting article about how much of a money-drain hosting the Olympics is and why smart cities shouldn’t bid; the benefits just aren’t there. While that may be the case, it’s interesting to note that Britain is seeing a six percent surge in bike sales following Bradley Wiggins’ Tour win. Perhaps repeated exposure to sporting events will get people active—if only for a short time.

If not, the games are always a wonderful excuse for provocative writing. Once every four years, experts and journalists have a chance to discuss everything from what it feels like to lose to why people choke and how sports drinks are a rip-off. This year, a big Olympic theme has been the participation of women. As we know, women are rarely treated equally, especially when it comes to athletics. What’s interesting about the London Games is that the I.O.C has pressured some countries into including female competitors.

That has raised a whole new series of issues: What to do about headscarves, marginally qualified athletes and more. Things started to boil over Thursday when Saudi judo competitor Wojdan Shahrkhani was told by the International Judo Federation that she cannot compete with a hijab. It’s unclear if she’ll now get a chance to participate because the Saudis made her coming to the game conditional on proper attire.

While we like to think that the U.S. has left sexism and prejudice far behind, the case of Sally Ride draws that into question. America’s first female astronaut made it into space in 1983, not all that long ago. By way of comparison, the first female cosmonaut accomplished that same feet in 1963. Things become more complicated when one considers Ride’s sexual orientation and how her concerns about the public and NASA’s reaction may have led to her silence on the topic (alternatively, she may just have been private). Regardless, at a time when cities like Chicago are opposing new Chick-fil-A stores because the company opposes same-sex marriage, it’s clear that sexual orientation remains a very contentious and public topic.

And let’s not forget Apollo 11. When the first man stepped on the moon on July 21st of 1969, it certainly was one of our country’s greatest moments. While the space program has had its share of ups and downs since then, a reflection on this week’s news shows just how much NASA matters: From the reports on Greenland’s melting to the satellites that will allow us to watch the Olympics, so much of today is possible because of NASA (and the Internet, which may or may not have been invented by the government, or ancient aliens).

And now, for this week's must-read stories:

NASA is working on food for a trip to Mars. Closer to home, the former president and chief operating office of McDonalds is trying to revolutionize healthy fast food. Frederick Kaufman, Wired.

"Lyfe’s aim is not just to build a radically sustainable, healthy brand of fast food. The former Golden Archers hope to transform the way the world produces organic ingredients, doing for responsibly grown meat and veggies what McDonald’s did for factory-farmed beef. These days, the utopian vision of responsible agriculture is premised on a return to small and slow. If Roberts is right, though, we’ll have to swallow a paradox as preposterous as a vegan Whopper: The nirvana of eco-gastronomy may at long last be attained, but only thanks to the efficiencies of supply-chain management."

There was a time not so long ago when the Olympics didn't let in professionals. Now it does, and some say the NCAA should follow suit. Patrick Hruby, The Atlantic.

"In reality, amateurism in both the Olympics and college sports comes from the same place: Victorian England. Specifically, snooty British elites who enjoyed rowing, winning, and keeping the unwashed, day-laboring masses at arm's length. 'Amateurism really started when the people who were rowing boats on the Thames for a living started beating all the rich British aristocrats,' Mallon said. 'That wasn't right. So they started a concept of amateurism that didn't exist in ancient Greece, extending it more and more to the notion of being a gentleman, someone who didn't work for a living and only did sport as a hobby.'"

What is greatness, and how do some athletes push themselves past the point of breaking? Enter the world of slack. Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker.

"This notion of slack is part of what we take as normal and natural about the world. Social and economic mobility, in any system, is essentially slack arbitrage: hard work is a successful strategy for those at the bottom because those at the top no longer work so hard. Tells about Salazar’s father, Jose, who escaped from Cuba to Miami in 1960. Salazar could have had a longer career had he pushed himself less. A moderate Salazar never would have come so close to death at Falmouth. But it was the miracle of Falmouth that freed Salazar to run with such abandon."

Yes, it's old. But it's also a wonderful insight into when the Olympic Games were still new. G. S. Robertson, The Fortnightly Review.

"These games differed from other athletic meetings in one most important feature—they did not stand or fall with the excellence of their athletics. Their promoters obviously expected that prodigious athletic results would be obtained, they expected to see the best athletes of the world perform the toilsome journey to Athens to win the olive branch of victory."

And another older article on what the Olympics truly represent and why we should cherish them (visually, too). David Halberstam, Vanity Fair.

"So, when I think about the Olympics at their best I think about athletes from the more arcane sports, people who see the Olympics as a rare, glorious, shimmering moment in the spotlight. I think of Alberto Juantorena, the Cuban 400- and 800-meter runner who won two gold medals at the 1976 Olympics. One of the greatest athletes in the world, he was seen far too infrequently on the international stage."

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