The Olympics still have the power to inspire and reveal our most unpleasant impulses and hypocrisies


Whispers about the decline of the Olympics seem to have been premature. Despite the well-founded criticisms, doubts, worries and ambivalence before the Tokyo Games started, they provided many compelling moments, stories and talking points that gripped much of the world.

Indeed, many people have expressed their surprise at how blown away they got from these games – how much they got out of a sporting event that, before it started, seemed out of place in a world. still grappling with the devastating COVID pandemic. .

There is even palpable heartbreak for some people at the end of the Olympics, especially in parts of the world that are still experiencing lockdowns.

In the aftermath of the Tokyo Olympics, it’s worth thinking about what meaning the games still generate. What are the stakes of the passions, struggles, triumphs and heartaches that, alongside COVID, have dominated news cycles for the past three weeks?

The power of national glory

The modern Olympics have long been based on the idea that sport is a force for good. Simply put, they always claim to help make the world a better place.

Yet after the disastrous second and third Olympic Games in Paris (1900) and Saint-Louis (1904) which were overshadowed by white supremacist festivals, it is the game of national rivalries – and the possibility of a national glory – which has attracted increasing public interest. in games.

By 1912, Australians were already so emotionally invested that they raised enough funds to send swimming star Fanny Durack to the Stockholm Olympics.

The modern Olympics were developed to showcase and celebrate strong, athletic men. But after winning gold in the women’s 100-meter freestyle, Durack became a national hero, as did fellow silver medalist Mina Wylie (whose family had paid for her travel expenses for the games).

The strange, yet powerful, sense of national accomplishment – and even vindication – in the actions of the athletes continues to shape much of the continuing fascination with the Olympics. Australian athletes have achieved many remarkable performances at the Tokyo Olympics. Like Durack and Wylie before them, Ariarne Titmus, Patty Mills, Jess Fox, Melissa Wu, Peter Bol and so many others have captivated a nation.

These athletes bring joy, amazement, pride and inspiration. And they are loved for it. But the Tokyo Olympics also gave us a clearer picture of the costs that such worship entails.

Peter Bol came close to winning Australia’s first medal in middle distance races since 1968.
Petr David Josek / AP

Love and betrayal

The focus on individual athletes – especially those who should bring national glory – is intense. Athletes deemed to have “failed” may quickly find that the love they were previously fulfilled was conditional.

Olympic athletes are loved for what they have done or could do – not (as much) for who they are as people. This worship is based on the powerful and joyful feelings they can bring and how their triumphs are shared by proxy.

This is a powerful form of identification that can become possessive. To many fans, it seems that the athletes represent not only their nation, but also as individuals. These fans often behave as if what is happening to the athlete is happening to them. Hence the ecstasy when the athlete reaches greatness.

On the flip side, however, when fans’ expectations aren’t met, they often react as if they’ve been personally betrayed.

The bitterness, judgment and even hatred directed at Simone Biles when she retired from the team gymnastics event was extreme. While Biles also received a wave of support on social media, the racial – and racist – dynamic of the harsh criticism and slander directed at him was striking.

Simone Biles said the abuse she suffered from a former team doctor may have weighed on her in Tokyo.
Ashley Landis / AP

Many white men in particular seemed personally offended that Biles prioritized his physical and mental health, saying no to a performance they expected to bring them pleasure.

In Australia, Ben Simmons was also vilified for retiring from the men’s basketball team, as if he had broken an unwritten contract to play for the benefit of the nation. (In contrast, Patty Mills was full in her simmons support.)

Even Jess Fox has been slammed on social media for “only” winning a bronze medal in the K1 slalom, although her “failure” was quickly forgiven after winning C1 gold.

Read more: The Power of No: Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and the Resistance of Black Women

What (and who) is forgotten

The fervent meaning that so many Australians find in Olympic performances routinely refutes the idea that we are more interested in watching men play sports than women.

As is often the case, most of the Australian heroes at the Tokyo Olympics were women. And millions of people have logged in to watch them compete.

Yet somehow the fascinating and thrilling performances of female athletes are conveniently overlooked when questions are asked about why competitions like the AFLW consistently receive less financial investment and media coverage. than the AFLM.

Equally disturbing, even in the midst of an Olympics characterized by inspiring exploits of Australian women, 80% of the general sports coverage of mainstream Australian media (in all sports competitions) always focused on men.

Read more: The AFL sells an inclusive image of itself. But when it comes to race and gender, there is still a long way to go.

And it’s not just the performances of the Australians that are often overlooked. Coverage of Rohan Browning’s impressive performance in the men’s 100-meter playoffs tended to overshadow the exploits of Kaanju man Patrick Johnson, who represented Australia in the sprint events at the 2000 Olympics and 2004.

Johnson not only holds the Australian record for the fastest 100-meter time, but remains the only Australian to have a time of less than 10 seconds. That he is less well-known than the slower Matt Shirvington (who also competed in the 100 meters at the Sydney 2000 Games) says a lot about Australian race relations.

These Olympics also raised vital questions regarding the treatment of trans athletes, the issue of gender policing, and how gender diversity challenges the strict binary nature of most sports competitions.

A force for justice?

Australia’s relationship with the First Nations peoples whose lands have not been ceded was the focus of the Matildas team who photographed themselves behind the Aboriginal flag after arriving in Tokyo.

In doing so, the Matilas followed a long tradition of using the national and international focus on the Olympics to raise (more) vital issues.

Around the same time, the International Olympic Committee banned its many media workers from posting photos of athletes who knelt before their events in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the IOC quickly lifted the ban after drawing much criticism, it underscored the organization’s reluctance for the Olympics to spark discussions on justice, despite the IOC’s stated commitment to the games. improve the world.

To the likely dismay of the IOC, the anti-demonstration rule of the IOC Charter, which was written following the famous salute of black power at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, is once again relevant.

Raven Saunders, a black American homosexual, crossed her arms raised above her head in an “X” after winning silver in the women’s shot put. As Saunders later explained, the “X” was “the intersection where all oppressed people meet.”

Raven Saunders has spoken openly about her struggles with depression and her take on inequality.
Francisco Seco / AP

As the IOC has suspended its investigation into Saunders after the tragic death of his mother, the case again raises questions about the immense significance the Olympics generate, and what that significance could facilitate.

Like many Olympics before them, the Tokyo Games created some fascinating sporting moments – when, for a few minutes, it seemed like nothing else mattered. The end of the men’s high jump competition, when the two leaders decided to share the gold rather than make a jump-off, was celebrated around the world as a act of inspiring sports personality.

Yet while the power of the Olympics should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to the public’s fascination with women’s sports, the IOC should be less afraid of how the games might promote the need for justice.

Until then, the burden of managing, resisting and using the spotlight that comes with the Olympics will fall unevenly on the athletes themselves.


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