Michelle Obama has those arms, but Ann Romney is kind of an Olympian. She owns a dressage horse, Rafalca, who will compete in the 2012 Summer Games in London alongside trainer Jan Ebeling. Over at the New Yorker, Amy Davidson asks whether that means we have to cheer for Ann Romney at the Olympics. We definitely have to cheer Rafalca, because what—am I to root for some Russian horse instead? But the question of whether that equals cheering for Ann Romney is less clear. Eberling is the one who actually rides Rafalca, putting Romney at another degree of remove from even being the person who sits on top of the actual competitor. It’s a tricky way to be an Olympian, as Mitt Romney has acknowledged. “She’s the athlete,” he told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation. “But in this case, it’s not her personally.” Oh.
Before we go any further, I should note that Ann Romney turned to dressage after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease so awful that when a guy I knew in college lied about having it, he had to fabricate the death of his mother six months later to make us forget. Ann Romney got really sick, and that horse made her feel better. It also cost an absurd amount of money. The purchase price of Rafalca is unclear, but last year the Romneys reported business losses for her care amounting to $77,000. A previous dressage horse they owned sold for $125,000.
Mitt has joked that he might send Ann to the Betty Ford Clinic for her “addiction to horses” which, at those prices, is roughly like being addicted to two-bedroom cottages. As Davidson notes, the gag is a bit tone-deaf. Romney has become a reliable source of gaffes like that, observing that plenty of his friends own NASCAR teams and otherwise making himself sound like the guy from Monopoly. He keeps doing it even as his campaign acknowledges that their primary challenge is to convince Americans that Romney is an ordinary person. It is almost as if A) he realizes he’ll never out-bootstrap Barack Obama and has decided to embrace his role as Rick Ross without the childhood, or B) rich people really don’t have any idea how a normal person lives.
Which brings us back to the Olympics. For an event ostensibly dedicated to amateur athletes, the Olympics requires bazillions of dollars to actually compete in. Seventy-seven grand for Rafalca Romney is actually pretty cheap. When you watch a sixteen year-old Estonian girl flip around on the parallel bars, you are watching the sum resources of a country. The athlete is the vehicle—literally for Rafalca, and figuratively for the wrestlers or the handball team or whatever. That’s why nationalism is such a prominent feature of the games. It’s also why one hears horror stories about the pressure and backstabbing it takes to get a spot on the team. No matter how fine an athlete you are, you simply cannot do it yourself.
It’s a System, in other words—a monolithic, compassionless System of the sort American oppositional culture sees everywhere and Candidate Romney must deny. There is no System, in the sense that there is no sentient conspiracy to enforce the status quo. But there is totally a System in the sense that individual work is the USB drive that plugs into an insanely complex machine, and that machine can arbitrarily accept or reject it. That is the system that makes Ann Romney an Olympian, even though her role in the actual games is to sit nearby and yell at her horse. It’s the same system that makes Mitt Romney a national leader. He may not do the actual running and jumping; he may not even be the guy who sits atop what jumps and runs. But he hired that guy, and he gets to keep the medal.
When you think of it that way, the Romneys are kind of gross. President Obama is gross, too, or at least unworthy of our singularly personal focus on “his” policies and “his” government. He runs the country the way Ann Romney runs a dressage course. Meanwhile, we participate in America the way Rafalca participates in the Olympics. Definitely, we could refuse commands and screw it up. If we do as we’re told, maybe we can win. What we cannot really do is choose what commands to obey, or who will give them. It’s the owners who compete, not us.