Why I Believe in the Olympics as an Idea

Once again, the Olympics have come and gone. For the better part of two weeks, the world trained its eye on the city of Rio de Janeiro, then left it to fend for itself amidst the aftershocks of civic and athletic ambition. It seems there are always concerns leading up to these global showcases, from the most recent World Cups in South Africa and Brazil, to the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia and now Rio. Two months before the Olympics, the governor of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of financial emergency, driving police officers to strike in response to inadequate funding.[1] Local protestors decried the country’s focus on the Olympics at the expense of public corruption, poverty, and lapses in safety and human rights. Across the globe, there were panicked whispers of crime, pollution and terrifying illness. Now Brazil faces a crossroads with the start of the impeachment trial of President Dilma Roussef, and Rio is left with impending ruins of ten billion dollars’ worth of tracks, courts, pools and stadiums. I love the Olympics in concept. Yet even the best ideas are messy in the real world.

No event of this magnitude goes off without a hitch, and the Rio Olympics were no exception. Crime was a real issue in one of the most felony-plagued cities in the world.[2] In separate incidents, two Australian rowing coaches were robbed, an Olympic security officer was killed at gunpoint, the Olympic chief of security was attacked by a knife-wielding man as he left the opening ceremony, stray bullets were found in the equestrian venue, and photographers and athletes reported multiple thefts.[3] Given the acknowledged real problems facing Rio de Janeiro, it is unfortunate that the biggest crime story of the Games was a fictional robbery fabricated by four American swimmers. Within the events, the diving pool turned an ominous bright green color, and an Egyptian judoka refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent after losing the match.
Why I Believe in the Olympics as an Idea
However, the games themselves were dominated by highlights. Fiji won the first Olympic medal for the tiny island nation, taking rugby gold by trouncing the country that invented the sport. Ethiopian Feyisa Lilesa finished his silver medal marathon with his arms raised in an “X,” a courageous symbolic protest against his government’s persecution of the country’s Oromo people, an act which may prevent him from returning home safely.[4] Simone Manuel came from behind to win the first individual swimming gold medal by an African-American woman. Brazilian star Neymar converted the final kick of a penalty shootout to win the soccer-mad host nation’s first Olympic gold medal in the sport. And Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt cemented their legacies as the greatest swimmer and sprinter of all time.

Yet over the course of the next three years and eleven months, most of us will forget
Katinka Hosszu, Adam Peaty, Almaz Ayana and Wayde van Niekerk, all of whom set new world records in Rio.[5] Four years from now, all but the most remarkable stories of the 2016 Olympic Games will be lost from our memories. But when competition begins in Tokyo in 2020, the world will eagerly await the next great Olympic moments delivered by athletes who will enter and depart our lives in less than three weeks.

Whatever magic exists in the Olympics exists even in the midst of political squabbling, gross inequality, crime and discrimination. It transcends defeat and even triumph. It exists in the brief moment before the flash of competition when the world feels alive with possibility. A skinny East African who grew up running barefoot, unable to afford shoes, can beat Americans and Europeans groomed on pristine tracks and trained with the best available athletic technology. A swimmer from Singapore of all places can outrace the best to ever enter a pool. 

Yes, you’re far more likely to become an Olympic gymnast if you grow up in suburban America versus the impoverished townships of South Africa. But the moment Olympians toe the starting line, take the field or begin their first tumbling pass, their race, gender, nationality and upbringing cease to matter. The Olympic motto “faster, higher, stronger” is one of equality. The stopwatch, the barbell, and the springboard and vault do not care how competitors reached that stage. Their privileges, luck, hard work and struggles are things of the past. At that moment, each of them has the same opportunity to be the fastest, strongest or most acrobatic man or woman in the world. For all the flaws of the Olympic system, it succeeds every four years in bringing together the best athletes from all corners of the world to compete on a level playing field. And for that reason, I still believe in the idea of the Olympics.

1. “‘Welcome to Hell’: Rio police protest financial disaster ahead of Olympics.” The Guardian. 28 June 2016. Online. 27 Aug. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jun/28/rio-olympics-safety-security-budgets-cut.
2. “Crime Index 2016 Mid Year.” Numbeo. 2016. Online. 25 Aug. 2016. http://www.numbeo.com/crime/rankings.jsp.
3. Fenno, Nathan and Wharton, David. “Ryan Lochte recalls a gun to his head after another troubled day at Rio Olympics.” Los Angeles Times. 14 Aug. 2016. Online. 25 Aug. 2016. http://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/la-sp-oly-rio-problems-20160814-snap-story.html.
4. Sieff, Kevin. “An Ethiopian medalist just led a protest that could land him in jail.” The Washington Post. 21 Aug. 2016. Online. 25 Aug. 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/08/21/this-ethiopian-runner-just-won-silver-in-the-marathon-and-then-he-led-a-protest-of-his-government-that-could-land-him-in-jail.
5. “Records.” Rio 2016. 2016. Online. 25 Aug. 2016. https://www.rio2016.com/en/records.