Athletes are Humans Too (and the beautiful/terrible things that happen when they remind us)

If you would have asked me three weeks ago whether I thought my post would be about the Olympics in any way I would have laughed at you. I can’t stand the Olympics in principle. From the bankrupting of Montreal, to the painting of lawns green in Beijing, to the murdering of Sochi dogs, to the removal of impoverished communities in Rio, the Olympics to me is mostly a legacy of arrogance, colonial mindset, wasting of public money for little social gain and general decadence while the planet burns. I had planned instead to write a post about how, while I’ve had to give up on my upper body strength work this year because of a shoulder injury, my attention to yin yoga meant my flexibility was off the charts. Kim had graciously remarked “that is just as useful in the apocalypse”. There is a cute little blog in that right?

But no, I can’t write about that, because I’m transfixed by the Olympics and what is going on there with these amazing young women in multiple sports. I am not particularly transfixed by their performances, although many are admirable. What I am transfixed by is their authenticity and their outright refusal to play the game that has been set before them by the rules that usually would eat away their little souls like lye on roadkill. I am flabbergasted at what they are saying out loud about how they feel about their performances, their lives and their mental health. Suddenly, the painful reality of the sacrifice and demand of sport, along with its stunning achievement is just laid out in the sun, exposing all the wet, rotten moldy realities and it is about time.

Let’s start with the home town gal, Naomi Osaka. She is the next gen superstar on the tennis circuit. She had pulled out of Wimbledon, frankly declaring that the pressure to not just perform on the court but perform to the media had overwhelmed her. She wanted to get her head on straight for the games. She lit the Olympic Cauldron, of course she did, representing everything the organizers wanted us to think the games were about, brilliant performance, diversity, the future. She was eliminated in the third round and let people know why.”I feel like my attitude wasn’t that great because I don’t really know how to cope with that pressure so that’s the best that I could have done in this situation.” She was honest, she is struggling to cope with this ridiculous situation she is in. There was a lot of support and a lot of garbage said about her, sexist racist garbage. We will come back to this.

Then there is Simone Biles, gymnastics superstar who has achieved things that are so spectacular, the system can’t cope with or understand the value of them. She has been dominant, envelope pushing and full of life . But in the profound weirdness that is this pandemic driven games, she lost it, literally. Her spatial awareness, so key to her capacity to execute these mind blowing moves, seems to have abandoned her. Instead of risking severe injury, she knew her own mind and body well enough to pull out. But that’s not all! She did something else that stunned the world, she told the truth about it. “The mental was not there”. She talked about “the twisties“, something that high performance gymnasts all recognize but has never been identified on this kind of stage. She spoke about the work it takes to stay in a sport she loves, even though she was betrayed by the disgraced team doctor, as so many other young women were in the US gymnastics program and of course other places in sport where hungry, young elite performers meet opportunistic predators in power. There was lots of support for her choice from her team mates and the public. And then again, waves of racist, sexist garbage.

And right here, is the conundrum I have about the Olympics. When I listen to these young women speak to the media, talking about their truths, their hopes, the fun they have had, the garbage they have endured, their depression, anxiety, perfectionism and the one perfect moment where they knew they gave everything they had, I want to cry. I love them and I am so honoured to be let in on the drama that is their achievement, medal or no medal. When I hear the honesty that is getting uttered into the public sphere about the mental health of the mental game, I’m floored. I think it really means something that these women have access to the language and can speak their truth about their experience, all of it.

But then, this honestly and authenticity enters the grinder of the hyped up commercialized nationalistic, racist, sexist pile of garbage as represented by the IOC and Twitter and I need to walk away. Most of the people competing at the Olympics are kids and young adults. They arrive in this realm, the so called “world stage”, just wanting to do their best and have some fun. This Olympics, staged as it is entirely inappropriately during a health crisis, is all of the work and none of the fun. No crowds to cheer, no other people to meet, no touring of the host country, no nothing. Do your event and get out. Try not to catch or pass COVID along while you are at it. Oh, and if you find this all a bit much, what with COVID, racial injustice, insurrections, fires, floods, bombs and the erasure of democracy in any number of your home countries, well, boo hoo too bad suck it up and dance for us. Like, I hate it.

I wish the Olympics was really the thing it purports to be, a place for the world to come together in friendship, respect and fairness. People of all the nations doing their best and having fun. Sometimes, in spite of itself, that does happen and in those moments, I tear up in the car, listening to the jubilance of a skate boarder and the elation of a rowing team. The chorus of support for Biles and Osaka swells and I will lend my voice to that. They made the best choices for themselves and drew lines where lines needed to be drawn. When the world pushed them too far and things fell apart, they tried to hold on to knowing it’s not all on them. That is a world I can feel better about, at least in this little corner, plague, flood and fire notwithstanding.

A picture of the Olympic flag on fire with fire in the background, how I usually feel about the games

3 thoughts on “Athletes are Humans Too (and the beautiful/terrible things that happen when they remind us)

  1. I love the Olympics because it is the only time I can see decent coverage of the sports I love – all the sports where people work hard in obscurity because it gives them joy. But totally agree with you on the rest of it.

  2. Susan, I love this post and it resonates so much! I feel like such a killjoy when I don’t “love” the olympics or space exploration or fireworks (as examples) as much as I’m “supposed to”, because I see a market machine using zillions of dollars on shiny sparkly events, while saying there isn’t enough money to solve the world’s challenges. That said, I do enjoy watching a female athlete perform at her best!

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