Delayed a year by a global pandemic, the XXXII Olympiad has commenced in Tokyo. As a child, I would’ve been thrilled, anxious, mesmerized.
How many gold medals would America win? Who would emerge as the Games’ next big star, our next Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis or Mary Lou Retton, our next Florence Griffith-Joyner or Bruce Jenner?
Now, I can barely summon the energy to care. The Olympics just aren’t the same.
Of course, neither is Bruce Jenner. Everything changes, often for the better, though the Olympics seem to be gasping like a marathoner hitting the wall. Why so? A few reasons.
The formulaic television doled out by NBC. The athletes’ desire to tie personal politics to performance. And the changing position of America in the eyes of neighbors near and far.
Olympic TV was a staple once, with Jim McKay, Al Michaels and experts like Donna De Varona narrating. Every night at prime time, we’d all gather before the Zenith.
In 1976, ABC broadcast 76 hours of coverage from Montreal. NBC won the broadcast bidding in 2014. They’re planning 7,000 hours of coverage from Tokyo, boasting they’ve created “the biggest media event ever.”
To fill this broadcast abyss — and justify nearly $8 billion investment in broadcast fees — NBC now focuses less on sports and more on storylines, making every athlete a hero out of Marvel comics.
The United States is sending 600 competitors to these Games. To hear NBC tell it, each of them has led a life of systemic deprivation and loss, full of tragedies physical, emotional, personal or societal.
If it sounds like I’m minimizing the struggles of my fellow Americans — well, I am. None of us has it easy in this life, nor should we expect to.
Success in any endeavor is hard: That’s why when you perform an Olympic feat, you get a gold medal before the world. Turning the Olympics into a 7,000-hour “After School Special” numbs the viewer the way formulas always do.
When every story feels the same — when we all know the plot — no story feels significant.
The same can be said of social justice protests: Familiarity breeds disinterest.
This summer, I followed the story of Sha’Carri Richardson, America’s fastest woman, suspended from the U.S. Olympic Team after testing positive for marijuana. I agree with President Joe Biden on this one. “Rules are the rules” was how he put it.
Where I lost the thread was when Richardson’s suspension became evidence of racism.
As USA Today headlined, “Opinion: Sha’Carri Richardson’s positive marijuana test one example of how anti-Blackness triumphs in sports.” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez weighed in, too. “The criminalization and banning of cannabis is an instrument of racist and colonial policy,” she said, calling for Richardson’s ban to be overturned.
You can feel it building as these games begin: The smashing of an all-time record for protests against every -ism worth detesting.
While I share many of those dislikes, where I change the channel is when the protesting feels endless. Turns out, I only have so much hate in me. Sometimes I just want to watch great athletes compete without being force-fed politics in the process.
Other folks, not so much, especially where America is concerned. Before the Games started, American hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the Stars and Stripes during the Trials award ceremony.
Expect many more such protests during games full of discord, plus a daily COVID-19 positive test tally.
It’s an apt metaphor: The Olympics, diseased and trending toward life support.
I’ll catch the highlights on the news. And the lowlights, too, of which I’m sure there will be many.