I love the Olympics.
In spite of all its excesses, scandals, boycotts, controversies and decades of melodramatic athlete profiles on TV (“As a young child he trained 25 hours a day eating nothing but sand … tonight, he goes for the gold!”), I revel in the games every time they come around. Summer, or winter.
What is it they used to say in the intro to ABC’s Wide World of Sports as that poor S.O.B. crashed and flipped week after week on a European ski jumping hill somewhere? “The human drama of athletic competition.” It gets me every time. For most of the athletes’ sacrifices (well, the NBA players are going to have to wait a few weeks to sign the purchase agreement on that Lake Como villa, but it’s a sacrifice of a sort), this is the true reality TV.
This year is different. Quite different. We haven’t waited four years since the last Summer Olympics but five, thanks to Public Enemy No. 1: COVID-19. It has helped make the Tokyo Olympics the No-No Games.
No fans in the stands because of COVID-19 restrictions. No stars like women’s tennis player Coco Gauff or basketball standout Katie Lou Samuelson competing because they’ve tested positive for coronavirus. Speaking of stars, there’s no Sha’Carri Richardson flashing in track and field’s 100-meter dash because of a positive test for marijuana use, sparking a debate over what some have viewed as archaic Olympic rules.
But the Games will go on nonetheless, just as they have after two world wars. Some question the necessity or validity of this sporting event with its roots in ancient Greece in the modern world. But for centuries the ancients would bring halt to their wars to compete in the Olympics.
We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to have the games endure. With all their faults and all their fabulous spectacles, they both mirror humanity’s worst tendencies and display our amazing capacities for endurance and brilliance.
The games can be downright heartbreaking. Most of these athletes toil at the margins of sports for four (or five) years waiting for what will likely be their one shot at glory. It can be snatched away so quickly. Think of Lolo Jones clipping the second-to-last hurdle in Beijing in 2008. Or the taekwondo athlete from Germany who columnist Mike Lopresti once described after a shockingly quick exit from her event.
“I have worked for four years,” she said between tears, “and my dream was gone after six minutes.”
The games can be absolutely inspiring. There is American gymnast Kerri Strug sticking her vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics on a painfully bad ankle to ensure the U.S. won the gold medal. There were the athletes from North and South Korea, marching into the 2000 opening ceremonies in Sydney under a unified flag. There was the Jamacian bobsled team in the 1988 Calgary Games. And there was John Stephen Akhwari, the Tanzanian distance runner who refused to quit the marathon in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics despite falling and limping to the finish line more than an hour after the leaders.
“My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race,” Akhwari said afterward. “They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
Was there ever anything that galvanized a country like the U.S. hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviets in 1980 in Lake Placid? I was a young boy when that happened, but I knew what the Cold War was. And I was amazed at how many of my fellow Louisianians who didn’t know a puck from pickup sticks were talking hockey during those amazing days.
“Mais, we’re doing a good job killing those power plays, yeah.”
So give me the Olympics with its cost overruns, its COVID protocols, even with its empty stands speaking in mute testament to our times. Instead of dwelling on the bad, let’s focus on the good that the games can bring us.
And the news that’s even better still? The Winter Olympics in Beijing is just a quick 6½-months away.