Growing up in the 1990s, I didn’t have photos of movie stars on my bedroom wall — I had Joan Benoit Samuelson. Sprinting to victory at the first women’s Olympic marathon, she looked confident and joyful and tough. I read about the sprinter Wilma Rudolph, the 20th child of a Tennessee railroad porter. She wore metal leg braces as a girl but grew up to be an Olympic champion; I taped her photo to my wall, too. Later I watched a number of champions on my television: Venus Williams in tennis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee in track, Misty Hyman in swimming. All perfect additions to my wall. To me they were heroes. They showed that you could win and be proud of it. They were Olympians.
Then I learned about what really went on around the Olympics. Children were assaulted by their gymnastic team’s doctor. Champions were fuelled by drugs instead of grit. Officials enriched themselves while athletes toiled. Actual villages were displaced for Olympic ones. The Games started to feel like little more than a national branding exercise — and a costly distraction from our long list of crises.
This year there’s even more to criticise. Tokyo is shaping up to be an angry Olympics, and with good reason: corporate greed, climate decay, racial inequity and the risk that holding the Games during a still-raging pandemic will make them a superspreader event. Some have said they’ve lost their enthusiasm for watching the Games. Toyota, a major sponsor, has pulled its commercials that were to run in Japan. (No one has the option of boycotting the Games in person, as earlier this month spectators were banned from most events.) Amid a spike in Covid-19 cases, the Japanese public overwhelmingly disapproves of holding the event (and nearly half of Americans agree). Already athletes have tested positive for the coronavirus, with some teams isolating after exposures. Meanwhile, we have witnessed outcries over whether Olympic rules treat all athletes fairly, including a series of scandals around swim caps that don’t accommodate Black hair, and the exclusion of African sprinters with naturally high testosterone levels from some races.
What has been sold as a moment of global unity and celebration of human achievement now feels as rotten as everything else. Is it possible to still watch in good faith? Or is this another broken institution we need to burn down?
I think there’s still a way to enjoy the Olympics this year — and even to love them. The appeal of the Games has never really been the Olympics as an institution; it’s the Olympians themselves. And since I was a kid putting their photos on my walls, the Olympians haven’t really changed. These athletes still showcase extraordinary human achievement from around the world. This year’s roster is as excellent as ever. Watching them makes you hope.
That was clear to me as I watched the U.S. Olympic Trials last month, when athletes competed for spots on the national teams. I was as exhausted by the pandemic and numbed by the litany of Olympic problems as anyone else, but as I watched Simone Biles teach gravity a lesson and Sha’Carri Richardson outsprint her competition, ambivalence dissolved.
The track was so hot that athletes could barely take it. Still, the excitement was infectious, the athleticism thrilling. Watching the face of someone in the seconds when she qualifies for the Olympics is witnessing what may very well be the highlight of her life. Your body strains along with her as she leans for the finish. It’s hard not to feel vicariously energised. We don’t have many ways left in our culture to be collectively inspired. After more than a year of lockdown, tragedy and uncertainty, watching athletes achieve their dreams despite all the challenges felt like one.
Even watching athletes’ disappointments was somehow motivating. After she failed to qualify for the Olympics in the 100-meter freestyle, the swimmer Simone Manuel talked about grappling with burnout and depression. Her experience was profoundly relatable, even if you are not among the fastest swimmers in the country. For a moment, she was fallible like the rest of us. Then, incredibly, she made it onto the team for the 50-meter freestyle race, in her last shot.
I’m tired of being cynical about everything. I read every day about how the ship I’m on is sinking, and right now I want to hear the band. This year I will eat it all up and watch Olympians push through adversity and pain to triumph. In such a broken time, there’s a particular salve that these triumphs offer, an example to spur us forward. After qualifying for her fifth Olympics, Allyson Felix brought her daughter out on the track to celebrate, making working parents cheer. Gabby Thomas discovered a tumour on her liver earlier this year (it turned out to be benign). After I watched her win the 200-meter dash at the trials, in the second-fastest American time ever, I figured maybe I could get my act together to make it to the office next month.
We can, and should, be critical of the Olympics as an institution while still appreciating the achievements of Olympians themselves. Like all of us, they are caught up in systems they didn’t create. Yes, there are lies, abuses and failures — but the talent and hard work are real. There are plenty of good suggestions for how to change the Olympics, and we should push for them. It starts at the top — with leadership that puts the focus back on sports. Fixing the Games will take pressure from fans, sponsors, athletes and nations themselves.
Regardless, fixing the Games won’t fix our bigger problems. For now, we have Tokyo. One weekend this summer I chatted with a 9-year-old. What did she want to be when she grew up? She didn’t say she wants to be an Olympian. She didn’t say she wants to win a medal. She said she wanted to be Allyson Felix.
You don’t have to be a kid to get a thrill out of people doing impossible things. The Olympics aren’t perfect, and neither are the Olympians. But they are showing they can endure. Maybe we can, too.
Lindsay Crouse is a writer and producer in Opinion.
The New York Times
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