Perhaps foremost among the myriad reasons I’m a sports fan is their innate beauty. Rarely is this cruel world of ours as aesthetically pleasing as a transcendent athlete doing that thing they do. It’s what makes it so unfortunate, then, that increasingly other forces have invaded sports commentary, employing these democratic actions of physicality as an excuse to stage absurd debates over the realness of being “clutch”, whether a championship confirms brilliance or lack of one negates it, loyalty and, of course, legacy. LeBron James, the way I see it, is no more and no less than what he does, and what he does is play basketball, and he plays basketball really freaking good. LeBron’s legacy is his superlative bounce pass at the London Olympics that made me leap from my seat and scream at no one since no one was with me.
Yet sports are being compromised by even more sinister forces, those of corruption, greed and politics. Soccer may be the beautiful game but it was difficult to watch last year’s Women’s World Cup and not repeatedly think of FIFA, the sport’s governing council, a nefarious gathering of avaricious jackanapses who ignored even the slightest pretense of human rights to line their pockets by giving Qatar the 2022 World Cup. At the same time, rightful debates about equal pay for women raged, questions about why they were inanely forced to play on artificial turf lingered, all while the obligatory meatheads claimed on Twitter that no one cared about women’s sports. And yet. In the World Cup final, when Carli Lloyd sent that breathless moonshot from the far reaches of midfield, improbably over and past the Japanese goalkeeper, it was such a resplendent display of primal athleticism you could not help but go weak in the knees even as you jumped up and down, screaming, living only inside that instant so that everything else temporarily fell away.
Carli Lloyd will be at the Summer Olympics kicking off today in Rio de Janeiro. You’ve probably heard about them. There have been a few complications. Like Russia’s track & field team, for instance, which was barred at the discretion of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) on account of widespread doping within its program. This was coupled with the revelation of Russia’s statewide doping at the Winter Olympics it hosted in Sochi in 2014. The latter prompted infinite cries to ban Russia from Rio entirely. The IOC (International Olympic Committe), a gaggle of Louis XVIs, punted on its decision to ban Russia, leaving it up to each sport’s indvidual body instead, likely because the IOC’s spineless members were scared witless by Putin. Some might tell you this was further evidence that Russia should have been sent packing, to send a message to Putin, and I get that, especially in light of HBO’s most recent “Real Sports” episode where a Russian construction worker said they were repeatedly told the Sochi games were “war.” If Putin can bully his way to whatever he wants on this stage then perhaps he can bully his way to whatever he wants on other stages. And yet. Even if this partially proves so many ideals in the IOC’s Olympic charter are bunk, I still believe in its article stipulating the Games “as competitions between athletes in individual and team events and not between countries.”
And so I think about Yelena Isinbayeva, the great Russian pole vaulter, the world record holder, two-time Gold Medalist, the one not busted for doping who is still forbidden from Rio because she is guilty by association. And I think about how I’ll miss seeing her, and how she renders hurtling over a bar set sixteen feet above the ground look both natural and sensationally unworldly, and how, in her diva-ish demeanor, she transforms the entire event into a playground for performance art. And I believe that she should be allowed to compete, because the Games should be about individuals and teams, not nations. And I believe forgetting that is as big a blow to the Olympics as doping.
Of course, the issues of the XXXI Olympiad extend beyond doping, and beyond one country flexing its muscles. In winning the right to host, Rio publically promised to re-make their city, to clean up its filthy water and assist its flocks of poor. That did not happen, as it so rarely does, as Athens and Montreal and many others will attest. “This disconnect—between populist promise and the uneven benefits that followed—is emblematic of the failed Olympic ambition to remake Rio,” wrote Alex Cuadros, “and a slew of questionable priorities that have brought Brazil to its knees.” It is important to remember what has befallen Brazil is bigger than the Olympics, that this global event has merely enhanced the profile of Brazil’s socioeconomic inequality, and that long after the Olympic torch is extinguished, the struggle of the city and the country will continue, much as it has for Athens and Greece in the 12 years since their turn to host. It is also worthwhile to note that this calamity could finally be the impetus for Olympic reformation, to tear down the unscrupulous IOC and re-create it. And I personally hope it prompts the naming of permanent individual locations for the Summer and Winter Games to avoid the financial devastation of host cities. These are all issues that must be pressed for the next fortnight, by the media, by the competitors, by everyone, even amidst the athletic revelry. And yet.
Rio will be the last Olympics of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, trying for the unprecedented back-to-back-to-back 100 meter/200 meter double. And while his otherworldly feats in Beijing left me joyously flabbergasted, and while his remarkable, almost effortless repeat in London bent my mind into a pretzel (and while his double smack down of Justin Gatlin at the Worlds last year sent me into convulsions), I dare say his presence in 2016 seems even more important. I say presence because while his “wait, what?!” 9.58 world record in the 100m and his mountains-moving 9.19 world record in the 200m are monumental, it is not the concrete accomplishments of Usain Bolt that floor me the most.
I have been watching sports north of thirty years now, and no single sight in the athletic arena that I have so far witnessed is more transcendent than Usain Bolt rounding the curve of the 200 meter dash. It is sports distilled down to their most captivating essence. The great sprinter Michael Johnson, with his iconic shoulder-back running form, always looked so casual, like a kayaker who had complete control of a river. Bolt, on the other hand, at the unnatural sprinting height of 6'5 and weighing a bit over 200 lbs, looks like a man bending the river to his will, as if he is pushing the rapids back against themselves. Other sprinters turn the corner; Bolt devours the corner. I never tire of seeing it. Never. But it is never better than those Olympic races, when your stomach drops as you wait for the gun to go off, and then the gun goes and time paradoxically stops even as the clock rolls and you just.....merge with the moment. His 200 in Beijing, when he ate that corner alive, left every other competitor in the dust like he was a goddam space shuttle breaking earthly bonds and broke the world record thought unassailable, felt like a dream.
A Usain Bolt 200m race lasts 19 seconds, which is just a blip, and yet what it does, how it transforms what you are seeing into what you are feeling, burrowing down into your soul, cleansing it of so much execrable emotional bile, and discharging it as you go troppo over this electrifying athletic endeavor, is always more than enough. And that’s the thing about the Olympics — you get all sorts of those little 19 second exorcisms. They are plentiful, more plentiful than they are any other time during those interminable interims between Olympiads, and I always look forward to them, but never before have I felt them so imperative.
Rio, I have been thinking all along, seemed part and parcel to this horrendous 2016. Now, however, I am starting to think that Rio’s feats of athletic strength could well be 2016’s best hope for absolution.