The Buffering and Battering (Day 6, Tokyo)

The U.S. and Japan mixed it up in women’s rugby, a demonstration of “Rugged Grace.” Photo by Reuters.

The Olympics have always been a gauntlet for athletes. The physical competition is hard enough. But they also have to contend with the expectations from their country, intrusive examination from the media, and the obnoxious assumptions made by–well, by us. It’s not new. It’s not right that humans are used as a brand for a country, or as symbols. I have a modest proposal toward that end. And, if you’re not keen on my idea, you might at least consider that there is some good arising from the “stress and strain of free competition.” Change does emerge from these battles. It takes time.

Same Old, Same Old

An awful lot of people have decided they know exactly what’s best for these talented individuals. Media feeds are replete with opinions about whether He Did or She Should or How it Proves one thing or another. The coin of the realm these days is to pick apart the decision of Simone Biles to remove herself from the team and individual all-around gymnastics competition. Most understand that part of her decision was that the tournament had grown far bigger than flying off a vault. Biles herself noted that she hadn’t quite realized what it would mean to be “the face of the Olympics.” Not the face of gymnastics, or even team USA. But NBC had been selling the entire Games with Biles’ giant photo superimposed over all its coverage.

Massive, over-hyped expectations aren’t new. Remember Matt Biondi? Biondi was an outstanding swimmer who competed in Seoul, in 1988, midway between seven-time-gold-medalist Mark Spitz and Crazy Arms Phelps. Biondi had a chance to equal Spitz’s record, as he was entered in seven races. Naturally, that was the story, and when he lost a close butterfly race to Anthony Nesty of Suriname, the story was the loss. Not his seven medals–five gold, a silver, and a bronze. Not his return to win three more in 1992. Just that somehow five wasn’t enough.

Matt Biondi, the “face of the Olympics” in 1988

Or, how about Mary Decker? Decker had waited eight years to get to the Los Angeles 1984 final of the women’s 3000 m. A newcomer from South Africa, Zola Budd, was a rising speedster. The two of them were surrounded by such a media frenzy that it upped the ante on winning. Both were inexperienced running in a pack, but run in a pack they did. When Decker stepped on Budd’s back foot, Budd tripped her, and both lost their chances at the medal that had been held out as the holy grail. They’ve even made a movie out of that one.

Enough With the Proxy Wars Already

The problem with all this agonizing over athletic decisions and results is that we continue to use these men and women as symbols of something for us. This, too, is not new. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. fought a “Cold War” of sport for decades. Every time Serbia plays Croatia in water polo, the hostility from their past would flow into the game and the spectators. Countries are always trying to use the Olympics for something else. When indigenous runner Cathy Freeman sprinted for Australia in Sydney 2000, the Australian media practically suggested the race was proof that their racist days were over. Not much to put on an athlete, is it? Please win this gold medal so you can prove that our country has evolved from its shameful past.

Uchimura falls of the bar, as people sometimes do. Photo by AP News.

We’re still doing it. The phenomenal gymnast Kohei Uchimura returned to compete in one last Olympics at age 32, after winning two golds and a silver in the All-Around plus a suitcase of other medals and world championships. His body only allowed him to compete in one event–the horizontal bar–but he fell. We might say “It was a valiant effort. Someone else will win that medal.” But there must be more. Rebecca Schuman of Slate wrote a beautiful “elegy” to Uchimura’s career, yet Schuman also added:

The redemption narrative we’ve been expecting for a year and a half, in the insipid plot to this real-life disaster movie, is not necessarily going to come…it seemed like the prewritten, perfect story to have Uchimura overcome it all…Instead, Superman—and, you know, the world—ate mat. …as a symbol for everything else, the flop at the big important moment is almost too on the nose to handle.

Is our hand-wringing over Biles’ decision really something else? It almost feels as if the world decided that if Simone Biles can come back after that extra year of postponement, after the horrors of Larry Nassar and the cover-up from USA Gymnastics, after struggling at the Olympic Trials, well…if Biles can come back through all that, then surely the world can, too. Somehow Biles performing a gymnastics vault became a symbol of the triumph over the pandemic! Cue Leni Riefenstahl!

Only the pandemic’s not over and won’t be for a while. Athletes are not necessarily symbols. And it ain’t fair to put the psyche of seven billion people on her shoulders. Other talented gymnasts competed, and it was a great meet! Congratulations, Suni Lee, Rebecca Andrade, and Angelina Melnikova. Isn’t that enough? Do we really have to get into the hyper-mechanics of a “twistie” or can’t we all just get vaccinated?

Simone Biles on the vault will always be awesome. Photo at the LA Times.

A Modest Proposal

The endless hand-wringing about what to do because these athletes didn’t meet our expectations has been excessive. A New York Times piece even suggested that the Olympics should be cancelled because Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles prove that it’s “too broke to fix.” I have a simpler suggestion:

Don’t televise the Olympics

Impossible because the IOC needs the money? The Olympics were funded through 1956 by the sporting federations and the national organization committees (NOCs). TV revenue wasn’t a big deal until the 1980s. If using taxpayer dollars doesn’t appeal, consider the model today. Today, TV revenue is the funding mechanism, money which comes from advertisers, who promote products to us. We’re already paying for it as consumers. The Olympics would not be cancelled if they were not televised.

Some might counter angrily that this would never happen because the athletes only compete for the audience. They wouldn’t do it without the fans! That may be true for a tiny portion of athletes, those whose sports have regularly been given the best prime-time slot, who grace magazine covers and billboards ahead of the Games. But watch five minutes of softball, judo, kayaking, or rugby, and it’s clear that the vast majority of athletes compete for the love of the sport. The idea that the athletes do it for us is back to the storybook thinking, treating them like circus acrobats who are there for us. They don’t start out as demigods; we make them that way.

The Olympics existed before NBC and ABC and the Bugler’s Call. Before “fly high and stick the landing.” If it seems better to get rid of them entirely than to–horror of horrors–let them go on without us watching, then it’s time for an attitude adjustment.

Better Individuals from the Give and Take

Pierre de Coubertin was an anachronistic fellow, a chauvinistic dreamer who probably gets credit for more than he deserves, but whose crazy ideas propelled this fractious sporting event into the biggest peacetime gathering in the world. The Games are messy because they don’t run according to a script, even when the media flogs the script as hard as possible. People aren’t robots. Coubertin got it right when stressing the participation part:

Peace could be the product only of a better world; a better world could be brought about only by better individuals; and better individuals could be developed only by the give and take, the buffering and battering, the stress and strain of free competition.

Pierre de Coubertin

Athletes don’t have to be symbols of something larger than what they are. They are human; we can learn from them, even when they don’t perform or don’t win. Competitors and spectators need to experience all the buffering and battering, the tough losses, the injuries, the fourth-places, and the costly wins.

Change Does Come, Little by Little

Enough with gloom and doom. There are tons of bright spots across the sports. Rugby returned to the Games in 2016, after nearly a century, but this time with both a men’s and a women’s division. It may be my new favorite team sport. The Fijian men play with such strength and grace–I saw jukes and fakeouts that were worthy of a gymnastic floor exercise.

The women are fierce! Team USA captain Nicole Heavirland has talked about how empowering the sport is for women, who find their calling in this contest that requires the rugged and the fleet to mix it up. And they got style–who doesn’t love a good rainbow rugby hat?

Australian rugby player Shani Williams. Photo from Sydney Herald.

Plus, in the fourth heat of the women’s 100 m last night, there were two noteworthy outcomes, if you know a little history. Jamaican Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce who is the fastest woman alive TODAY at 34 years old, won her result. She returned to competition after having a baby, as did Allyson Felix and Quanera Hayes. It used to be unheard of for mothers to compete, especially in track. Pressure from Felix and others helped overturn pay inequities and assumptions that women would have babies and quit. Might there be a women’s 100 m final full of 30+-year-old mothers?

Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce, still fastest woman alive at age 34. Photo by the Guardian.

There was another notable happening. Off in Lane Eight, cropped out of most of the photos featuring Fraser-Pryce, was sprinter Dutee Chand. Chand finished seventh, with a time not as good as her personal best. She will not move on. But for her just to get into the Games–and stay in the Games–was remarkable.

Dutee Chand competed in Tokyo 2020, which is a win in itself. Photo at Reuters.

Chand is the sprinter who was banned from running for having the wrong chromosomal structure, told after mandatory gender-testing in 2014 that she was a man on the inside. However, she fought back and took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, arguing that the genetic science didn’t prove she had an advantage. She won the case and forced the IOC and track federation to collect the research.

Most people are aware that Caster Semenya and other female athletes with too much testosterone are excluded from the 400, 800, and 1500 races. (Which is wrong and which I think will eventually be overturned.) What most don’t know is that the 2018 ruling was finally based on some science, science which linked hormones to advantages in middle distance races. By doing that, by excluding athletes with hyperandrogenism from those three races, the ruling opened up all the other competitions.

Dutee Chand’s appearance, even in 7th place in a 100 m sprint, is a big win for women athletes — not just for those with unusual genetic conditions, but for all women who are targeted for being just a little too muscular or looking insufficiently feminine. Gender-testing in bygone days would exclude them all.

Chand had to endure her share of buffering and battering to get there. It has brought about a better world of better individuals.

I covered Chand’s story in A to Z Olympics under “Q is for Queer.” Lots more if you click the magic button here.

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