' ' Cinema Romantico: From the Couch: the 2020in2021 Summer Olympics in Review

Monday, August 09, 2021

From the Couch: the 2020in2021 Summer Olympics in Review

When Team USA entered the Olympic Stadium during NBC’s broadcast of the Opening Ceremonies for the Tokyo Summer Olympics, co-host Mike Tirico, in a semi-scolding voice, instructed us to feel happy for these competitors despite the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic, insinuating that if the Games were called off, we would be depriving them of their dream. Leaving aside that Tokyo2020in2021 could have simply become Tokyo2020in2021in2022 to alleviate the issue, Tirico was eschewing considerable context. If these Olympics were all about the athletes, then why were all 11,000 of them subject to the American National Football League schedule, prompting NBC to insist the Tokyo Games be held in late July, early August, in the middle of typhoon season and when the hot, humid weather is least conducive to those athletes? And if these Olympics were all about the athletes, then why were they framed in a nationalistic context, as a nominal triumph for Tokyo, an ostensible comeback for Japan from the Fukushima nuclear disaster? And if these Olympics were about city and country as much as the athletes, why not mention the Japanese protestors outside the stadium who did not want the Games to go forward under a literal state of emergency? Did their voices not count? The Games might belong to the athletes, but their marching in an empty stadium put into stark perspective how they were being sacrificed at the altar of a business deal between NBC, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the city of Tokyo, sent to compete not in The Glory of Sport but to help cut already gargantuan losses. Tokyo2020in2021 was not Faster Higher Stronger; it was grab as much as you can.

It was a weird Olympics. The Games, both Summer and Winter, have been television shows, really, since Roone Arledge began producing them for ABC in 1964, though that sensation became even more acute in 2020 (2021). Athletes mugging for cameras is nothing new, but in 2020 (2021), their mugging in conspicuously empty stadiums was an incessant reminder that were it not for TV, none of this would be happening in the first place. The Olympic Village, normally ground zero for celebration, was, by many accounts, like American beach volleyball player Phil Dalhausser’s for The Financial Times, “kind of a bummer.” It was much more than a bummer for Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya who was granted a Polish humanitarian visa after being ordered home to her autocratic country for criticizing her coaches and refusing to board the flight, a reminder that life goes on even when the Olympic flame is lit. Medal ceremonies, typically half-minute bursts of joy were necessarily compromised by medal recipients wearing masks. The women’s semifinal soccer match in a barren stadium between U.S. and Canada felt depressingly leaden, like it wasn’t the Olympic Games at all but the Nova Scotian Soccer League. Nothing was weirder than Beach Volleyball. A sport that typically evinces a party atmosphere came across apocalyptic in an uninhabited arena with vacant seats stretching to the sky, like Manhattan Beach had become a deserted Thunderdome, where the weather changing from pouring rain to such immense heat the sand had to be hosed down yielded brutal conditions. NBC marketed April Ross and Alix Klineman so heavily that their eventual Gold Medal on the overcooked beach felt pre-ordained even if their two-week ordeal felt less like winning than surviving. 

USA Gymnastics was counting on Simone Biles, GOAT™, to carry the team just as NBC was counting on her to carry their coverage, all of which felt inevitable because that’s how Biles’s talent has always felt. But that’s a strange paradox. She is capable of athletic maneuvers far beyond her Earthly peers, inherently underlining not only their difficulty but literal danger, and yet we – me – were simply conditioned to expect – assume – her flawlessness. As Biles struggled in the Gymnastics preliminaries, the NBC announcers continually reminded us that this was merely qualifying, that these scores did not matter in so much as gymnasts did not carry them into the ensuing stages of competition, missing the forest for the trees. Biles carries everything with her. Not just as an Olympics linchpin but as the emblem of a USA Gymnastics program that fostered an abhorrent system of sexual abuse and utter neglect for the mental and physical well-being of athletes in their care. That the national governing body expecting Biles to single-handedly earn them Gold was the same national governing body that hung her out to dry was an irony as rich as it was appalling. 

One-time American skier Krista Schmidinger once observed of her sport, where actual flying features as prominently as gymnastics, “When you’re in the air, you just have to accept that you’re in the air and have a good time up there.” You can’t have a good time in the air, however, when you’re lost, which Biles said she was, explaining she literally could not tell up from down. The Twisties, they call them, which makes them sound like baseball’s Yips, the go-to comparison for most commentators, though considering the peril of flying through the air and not knowing where you might land makes it sound more like a Formula 1 driver being wracked with hysterical blindness mid-race. And if once upon a time Biles would have been programmed to still put herself in harm’s way, she had the willingness, if not the exclusive status unshared by other athletes, to opt out.

The Biles-less team rallied and earned silver; her teammate Suni Lee won the hallowed individual all-around; her teammate Jade Carey won the Floor Exercise; Biles even came back at the end of competition and won Bronze on the Balance Beam, momentarily putting her hand to heart as she came off the mat, looking less like the GOAT™ than a person afraid from flying who had just exited an airliner. In a Sports Illustrated piece about his experiences at the Munich Olympics defined by violent tragedy, Kenny Moore noted “the essential lesson of all athletics: Everyone suffers. It’s what you do with your suffering that lifts and advances us, as swimmers, softball players and gymnasts. As a species.” True, though for too long in sports suffering has been viewed as an end unto itself. Biles redefined suffering not necessarily as something to be lionized, casting all manner of herculean Tokyo struggles in a different light. 

Canada’s Andre DeGrasse, always a bridesmaid, yada yada, won 200 meter Gold, and while athletes posing with flags looked that much more like pure photo ops this year, his still moved me in a melancholy sort of way, slumped on the track in the Maple Leaf, his elation shading into relief. Relieved is how American basketball coach Gregg Popovich sounded in confessing the weight he felt shepherding Team USA to an expected Gold Medal in Basketball, that expectation seeming to render the whole exercise as dutiful joylessness. Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands pulled an improbable triple on the track by winning Gold, Bronze, and Gold in the 5,000, the 1,500, and the 10,000. After the last, an excruciating crucible in the stifling heat, she said all she wanted was to sleep and that, upon waking up, felt stress-free now that her task was complete. By the end of the same interview, though, she was already pondering running the Marathon in Paris 2024. Olympians don’t sleep for long.

No squad ever had more fun than the U.S. Women’s Indoor Volleyball Team

As a counterpoint to all this weight, the U.S. Women’s Indoor Volleyball Team felt like they were floating all the time on air. In ranking literally every Olympic sport for Slate, Mike Canter, while placing Indoor Volleyball high, nevertheless intoned “The only confounding thing is why everyone on a team has to high-five after every point, no matter what happened.” Confounding?! The high-five after every point, no matter what happened, is the point; like every long distance run is a little life, to paraphrase Alan Sillitoe, so is every point in volleyball like a little life, each one to be celebrated or exorcised, frequently a snapshot of electric athleticism, like Jordan Thompson, an outside hitting superhero, every swing a cartoon KaPow! There was no one I enjoyed watching the first week of these Games more than her. And when Thompson rolled her ankle against Russia – excuse me, the Russian Olympic Committee – and the U.S. lost, things suddenly looked dire. But the Rolling Carnival of High-Fives just plugged in Annie Drews, there to chew bubblegum and kick ass (she never ran out of bubblegum, fyi), and high-fived to the top of the podium. After their throttling of Brazil to win the Gold, I felt like a theater kid striking the set; this team was so much fun, I didn’t want its run to ever end.

From a distance, the Canoe Slalom course looked almost as peculiar as the empty Beach Volleyball arena, manmade whitewater set down before the looming Daikanransha, the Giant Sky Wheel, as if Coney Island had instituted river rafting. And while the empty stadium seats beside the course did not exactly fool one into thinking these people were paddling up on the Kennebec, when the paddler would push off from the starting gate in the calm water and set off into the current, those empty stadium seats disappeared completely from the camera’s view and I was riveted, for every single run. And in going last in the first-ever Women’s Canoe-1 Slalom, with a seemingly insurmountable time to surpass, Australia’s Jessica Fox surpassed it, ripping through all 25 gates with no errors, winning Gold. In a historical context, it was significant; in a vacuum, it was bodacious, dude. 

Cyclists, in their rad bike helmets and completely cool, completely expressionless faces hardly seem to be aware of the crowd even in the best of times and in Tokyo, in the worst of times, wrung plenty of thrills from the empty velodrome anyway. It’s the build-up in sprint cycling, I’ve come to realize, the stillness of the cyclists as they gear up contrasted against the eventual explosion of speed which I love so much. After going through myriad heats in the Women’s Keirin, which begins with a pace setter, like if the Daytona 500 was only 6 laps, Shanne Braspennincx of the Netherlands, upon holding off her hard-charging cohorts, finally exploded too, unleashing a cathartic cry of exultation that felt so good. 

Nothing, though, usurped the Men’s High Jump, a breathtaking contest in which all manner of dudes from different countries pushed the boundaries of their own possibilities. Australia’s Brandon Starc did not even medal, finishing fifth, but proved no less moving than the victors when he tried to jump the Olympic record of 7 ft 10 in and smashed into the bar on the way up, weirdly moving, like some Project Mercury astronaut battering himself against the edge of space, trying to break through. The event concluded in a tie between Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and while tradition, if not procedure, dictated a jump off should settle matters, when an Olympic official explained this to the two men, Barshim posed a simple question in the manner of a little kid asking if he and his friend can each get a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Barshim asked: “Can we have two Gold Medals?”

That Barshim and Tamberi were later revealed as the best of friends only made it more moving. American 400 meter hurdler Sydney McLaughlin edging past her friend, teammate and rival Dalilah Muhammad in the last ten meters of their final might have embodied the most visually axiomatic athletic truth in Tokyo (McLaughlin’s movement was so effortlessly smooth it rendered the drama moot and just made you shake your head at the sheer beauty of her stride) but in these improbable double Gold Medals, The Glory of Sport, too often unnaturally applied to certain moments at the Olympics to fit a narrative and a marketing purpose, manifested all on its own. Tamberi cried; Tamberi’s coach cried; Barshim’s coach cried; other random coaches and officials in the stands were crying; I was crying. After a tumultuous year that suddenly appears poised on the premise of further tumult, this provided unforeseen, jubilant release. I’m not sure it justified Tokyo2020in2021 itself, but sometimes in this life you have to let yourself savor the moment nonetheless.

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