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The 2021 Olympics Are an Inspiring, Infuriating Shitshow

·7 min read
Griffiths/Getty
Griffiths/Getty

This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.

I’ve Watched the Olympics All Week. Sorry, Here’s a Rant.

In the first week of Olympic events and primetime coverage, there is only one moment I can think of that was truly moving and inspiring. One that represented what the Games are supposed to be about and validated my foolish decision to spend every hour outside of work watching the often obtuse and ignorant coverage of events. And that moment had nothing to do with an athletic accomplishment.

Obviously, the big news of the week, if not of the 2021 Games and maybe even this era of modern sports, is that Simone Biles withdrew from competition. This is the age of the 24/7 news cycle and, no matter what measures a sports fan takes to lock themselves in a nuclear-safe bunker to block out results before primetime, that was spoiled before most Americans had finished their morning cup of coffee by no less than 14 news alerts directly to their phones.

Of course in 2021, the competition, the TV broadcasts, the media coverage, and the ensuing discourse among dumbasses all tangle together into a rat king of an infuriating Olympic experience from which it is impossible to uncoil a single pure and joyous element.

The Biles news became inextricable from its crass coverage on NBC, the hysteria of news outlets, and the vile ignorance with which pasty men with muffin tops spilling over their stained khakis smugly opined. Just as this year’s Olympic Games can’t be separated by the ghoulish decision to carry on in spite of rising local COVID rates, the fact that all wins could be qualified with an asterisk given how many athletes couldn’t compete, and the haunted nature of a communal international event in which a pandemic prevents any physical community or celebration.

Each night, watching the Olympics has been an exercise in escalating frustration. Yet it’s still the Olympics. And there are still moments that puncture that pessimism. I cry every single time someone wins a medal. If they show the ceremony and the person tears up while their nation’s anthem plays, I am inconsolable, vicariously imagining what could have been if I didn’t quit soccer at age 6.

The competitors are as astonishing as ever—superhuman, really. NBC’s overproduced and emotionally manipulative clip packages do their job, producing and manipulating a waterfall of feeling every time. Few things pair as nicely as schmaltz and sports.

So what do we make of that discord? The televised feats of athleticism are more intense and, really, unsustainable to the human body as ever. But so is the accompanying bullshit. This is the ugliest, most despicable Olympics I can remember in my lifetime, particularly when it comes to the cultural conversation it incites. And yet I’m addicted, deeply moved multiple times each night by what I’m witnessing. Can an absolute shitshow also be beautiful?

Before I finally had the chance to watch the women’s gymnastics team finals on Tuesday evening, the event in which Biles bowed out after just one vault, the day had been filled with the predictable vomit of histrionics and trolling.

News coverage used the occasion to resurface a highlight reel of every misstep Biles has made in the last year, conveniently ignoring every statement she has candidly given about how that kind of pressure has made her look forward not to the Olympics, but to when the whole ordeal would be over.

Then the sentient double chins with their podcasts and Twitter accounts weighed in, swinging their tiny dicks through racist and misogynistic monologues about Biles and the decline of American greatness. They left out the bit about how the two other GOATs they compare to Biles, Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps, once made similar decisions about their sports futures because of their mental health.

These are the same bad-faith brainworms whose only relevancy is mined from performative bloviating and chest pumping to score points in this fictional war on culture. And we let them.

After a day of that, I was shocked to watch the telecast and discover something wholly different from the darkness and pain that had defined the news’ tone. What I saw was inspiring. I saw a team rally together to support their leader and prove themselves in the highest stakes of circumstances. I saw joy, the girls singing and dancing on the sidelines, Jordan Chiles’ enthusiasm exploding through the screen. I saw Biles cheerleading her teammates, a smile on her face for maybe the first time in Tokyo. I saw her generosity.

None of that tracked with the toxic cesspool of negativity that permeated the day, or even with the narrative that NBC was trying to spin. They zoomed in on Biles for every close-up of a broken hero they could possibly get, and ignored the rest of the international field to key up some Hollywood-esque U.S.A. versus Russia storyline we didn’t need.

I’ve found each similarly inspiring moment to be suffocated by those same crass broadcast impulses. Tom Daley’s gold medal win in synchronized platform diving made my heart soar. It was a triumphant peak of a storied career, and it mattered. It mattered because he worked so hard for it. And it mattered because, yes, he is openly gay, married, and has a child.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Twitter</div>
Twitter

On the one hand, the commentators’ effusive awe that a gay man got married and had a child while competing was exhausting. They were one hyperbole away from rewriting history to say that the first brick thrown at Stonewall was actually Tom Daley hurling his gold medal. It was patronizing for everyone involved: the treatment of a happy gay family in which a parent has success as a modern miracle, and the erasure of God knows how many female Olympians who also balanced their athletic superiority with motherhood.

But that predictable nonsense is far removed from the touching thing that happened here. Tom Daley, a sports hero if there ever was one, finding peace in life while achieving his dream, and working to ensure that his sexuality and activism ran parallel to his stardom and achievement. It’s brave work in acknowledgment of what it means to see an openly gay athlete proudly himself while proudly also the best in the world.

Each night this week, as I’ve groaned when yet another U.S. swimmer was out-touched in a race they were favored to win or screamed with delight when someone like Alaskan Lydia Jacoby defied all odds to be an Olympic Cinderella story, I’ve wondered what it is we want or are owed from these athletes as entertainment. Especially at a time like this when the cultural reflex is to vilify every false step.

Simone Biles was made to be a tool in Gymnastics U.S.A.’s post-Larry Nassar redemption narrative. And after she left the competition, she became the object of shameless discourse about strength and patriotism amongst the nation’s most dispensable cretins with platforms. For her to field those lightning strikes of abuse and repel them with her own agency is a superhero display of its own.

We act as if we were or are participants in these athletes’ lifelong training and sacrifices on the way to the Olympic arena, like we should be consulted in decisions made about their bodies, the danger they’re willing to face, or the future they’re willing to risk to perform for us. But the only say we have is in their exploitation and dehumanization. There is nothing that they owe us.

Instead, we’re gifted something. We’re offered the opportunity to bask in their greatness. To be in awe of their generosity. To share in the emotion of a lifelong dream achieved as they stand proud on a medal stand, crying along with them.

I can’t get over how wrong so much of what I’ve witnessed this week feels. And I’m so grateful to these athletes for consistently showing what’s right.

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