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The Olympics Really Don’t Need Countries

We are drowning in summer. It is 106 degrees outside. It is 106 degrees every afternoon. Every morning is a resigned preparation for the battle to come. We keep the ceiling fans on high; we wear little clothing. We have blinds and heavy curtains, a big red maple out front, a stand of loblolly pines up the hill beyond that. None of these things matter. The midday sun cuts through our defenses like a bullet through a plane’s fuselage in a Bond movie and roasts us like a laser frying pants in a Bond movie.

There is no such thing as playing outside when Earth’s atmosphere does its best imitation of Venus. Shade is a punchline. Air conditioning means nothing. We can only sit, move only to breathe, wait for the sun to duck back below the treeline. Only then does engagement with the wider world become thinkable, if impractical. The present moment is not especially kind.

During these, the very doggest of days, all parental fortitude regarding screens and limiting our child’s time in front of them quite simply evaporates. True — we have plenty of indoor games and activities and makeshift stuff. But energy and creativity are the resources of a standard-functioning brain. What we need is active appreciation of passive entertainment. To be amazed by the truly and genuinely and legitimately and positively amazing; to be roused to shocked and regular reassembly of our faces. For this, we give daily thanks to the Olympics, and the demigods competing therein.

It’s long been a cliché that every four years the world spends a fortnight captivated by sports it then forgets about until the next Olympic Games. And there is more than a note of sadness in there, since it’s not as if every single “obscure” sport, from synchronized diving to the shot put to rhythmic gymnastics to the canoe slalom, simply hits pause when the Olympics wrap, and all those sports’ athletes wait three years before they start training for the next one. Olympic sports are all always going, all the time.

But if you choose to look not at the glass as half full and instead marvel at the existence of the glass itself, the first of many wonderful little things about the Olympics is that we all choose to give a shit, many shits, huge shits, about sports we don’t pay any attention to outside of this one very specific, very sporadic context. And if you can let yourself appreciate that little thing, it turns out it’s very easy to become overwhelmed with happiness and awe for the athletes and their efforts.

For starters, it’s always worth pointing out that Olympic athletes are literally the best in the whole entire world at what they do. It helps to have a child around when you explain that, because when a child who’s juuust starting to understand the enormity of life on earth responds with bulging eyeballs and an O-shaped mouth big enough to fit a box of cookies in, you yourself will remember that being one of the ten or twenty very best at something is indeed a big fucking deal.

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Pause for a moment and take stock of yourself. Get brutally honest and hone yourself down to the stuff that you do well enough that you’d be willing to compete against other people. I’m only really good at three things. Of those, one is raising my kid, and everybody ties in that. The second is washing dishes, which is a lame humblebrag at best. And the third thing is parallel parking. But brutal honesty compels me to report that there’s no way I’m among the best parallel parkers in the world. A London cabbie or a Mexico City delivery driver would smoke me like a two-day brisket and leave me boxed out curbside with a line of traffic honking well into the night.

And that’s all I’ve got. There’s nothing I do well enough, not speed dishwashing or bad tweeting or even procrastination, that I could qualify for the Schlub Olympics and then make it through all the required time trials and quarter- and semi-final matchups and then find enough reserved strength in the medal round to mount a podium dizzy with fatigue and glee. Let alone, you know, actual sports. I love running, but watching Olympic track and field leaves me with a hearty appreciation for what the human body can do when the human mind is strong enough to train it.

It almost goes without saying that the Olympics are top-to-bottom with athletic brilliance, but the possibility that you’re going to see a new record get set adds a thrill to everything. It’s an exceptionally strong possibility this year, where both Olympic and world records are being rewritten at a record pace. Set aside the discordance of the 2020 Olympics happening in 2021 and the Tokyo 2020 logo making it through unchanged and you’ll find too many new records to list — well over 100, some of them especially absurd. In the women’s 4×200 meter freestyle relay, all three medaling swim teams broke the old world record, a fact that is simply bananas and that I am still not over a week later. Georgian weightlifter Lasha Talakhadze put up enough weight to make The Mountain cringe and did it as effortlessly as a parent lifting a baby from a high chair for a nap. Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa screamed so loudly when she saw she’d broken the world record in the 200 meter breaststroke you could hear her over the announcers and the crowd — and then, in maybe the best single moment of the whole Games, the other medalists and the other South African in the race came over to congratulate Schoenmaker with smiles so big you’d think she’d just become a mom.

I should also fully acknowledge that my blind love of the Olympics is amplified by watching them with a five-year-old. Most of this stuff he’s never seen before, so it’s all incredible to him. Because I want to fuel his love of it, my own responses to every dive, every close call on the indoor bike track, every high jumper who doesn’t clear the bar are new opportunities for incredulity, horror, empathy.

And I should also-also point out that not knowing all of the rules for every event, not knowing any of the rules for some events, is another really helpful thing. I don’t need to know a single clause in the Official Rules and Bylaws of Handball Governance to know that a) handball looks cool as hell and b) handball looks tough as shit. I think you’re not supposed to dribble it more than once? And no one ever seems to be in the huge maroon arc in front of the goal, so I guess staying in there is maybe like a lane violation in the NBA? But who cares about those things? It’s not necessary to understand anything beyond “get the ball in the net.” Ignorance of the game’s finer points doesn’t stop me cheering wildly for every off-kilter goal, blocked shot attempt, deflection, abrupt possession change. If anything, ignorance makes things more exciting: the reasons why a mystery, the frailty of all systems exposed, only the thrill of the moment remains, hanging in the air like a champagne cork sliced from the bottle with a saber.

Wondering out loud about why the players are and aren’t doing a certain thing is also great for idle conversation. This week my son and I had the following exchange:

“Papa, they are knocking each other over.”
“I know — it’s intense, this game.”
“The referee should blow his whistle.”
“I think maybe this sport lets you foul a lot more than other sports.”
“They should have giants be the referees.”
“How would that change things?”
“The players would have to run around the giants’ feet.”
“I bet that would make it more difficult.”
“But then they could climb the giants’ legs and score like this!” (*roars, jumps off the couch, throws a pillow across the room*)

After you’ve watched like this for almost the entire Games, laughing and clapping and hopping up from the couch at all the happy moments and cringing and hoping for the best at all the mistakes and injuries and outright tears — well, you kind of have to acknowledge that you’re a bit of a sap. And I do this readily! But I also submit that the Olympics really doesn’t need countries. They’re unimportant for the whole spectacle, which is above all a celebration of human capability. Rooting primarily or only for athletes from a specific country is a curious choice at best, like wearing a tuxedo to a barbecue. There’s just too much great stuff happening at any one moment to pay attention only when your country has athletes in an event, to allow yourself true exuberance only when your country does well.

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You can’t not be happy when someone wins their country’s first-ever gold medal, as Ahmed Hafnaoui just did for Tunisia and Hidilyn Diaz did for the Philippines. But even those triumphs feel less about one country being the best and more about transcending sports, celebrating individuals and the people who helped get them atop the podium. To whatever extent that that includes the broad geopolitical construct known as a country, the real celebration begins upon seeing the athlete’s face — their unique expression of disbelief and joy — and letting that expression stir something in yourself.

There have been plenty of other, similar moments at the 2020 Olympics, and they haven’t all had to do with straightforward winning. The Italian and Qatari high jumpers who decided to share the gold medal are one. The American and Botswanan runners who tripped over each other in their semifinal jogged the back half of their race side-by-side. Simone Biles’s gymnastics accomplishments already require poetry to describe, but decision to deal with her mental health by removing herself from competition in the middle of what’s likely her last Olympics will prove more consequential, helpful, and unifying.

Organize the Olympic athletes by any other metric you like and the results will be the same. Tokyo is done; Beijing, take note: If you remove all the flags, all the hypnotic, transcendent moments, the really fun stuff that’s ultimately the point of the whole thing? All of that will be unchanged. An athlete’s reasons for competing are important, as is the support that got them to the Games. More meaningful is what we choose to take away from the competition. It might be just a break from the oppressive and growing heat, the world outside. Maybe it’s motivation. Maybe it’s simple grace. Or maybe I’m just hopelessly naïve; sometimes, it’s hard not to be.

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Written By

John is a former academic and lifelong overthinker. He's written many short things and abandoned many long ones. He grew up in the Midwest, currently lives in the South, and would get lost in a different forest every day if he could. He is trying very hard.

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