When I talked to my editors about writing an article called “In defense of the Olympics,” I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be. The day I started working on it, a rather more important article came out — a statement from Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, member of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot, about why she was going on hunger strike to protest conditions in the prison where she’s serving a sentence for a performance denouncing the rule of Vladimir Putin.
To anyone who doesn’t live entirely under a rock, it’s hard to miss Russia’s long-standing problems with human freedoms — murdered journalists, silenced political opposition, and the passing of laws denying queer rights have long been subjects in the media. They’re especially hard to miss living in central Europe, in a post-Communist country that remembers all too well the days of Soviet dominance and has watched a dubious democracy struggle to take hold over the past 25 years. However, there was something especially visceral and chilling about the way a 23-year-old dissident and mother described the conditions in a modern-day Russian gulag. It made it inescapably hard to reconcile the idea of the Olympics, which as taught in school are a celebration of international camaraderie and the indomitableness of the human spirit, with a country whose leaders try so very hard to break the wills of dissenting voices.
The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics have come under fire for this, of course, as did the 2008 Summer Olympics, held in Beijing, in a country with serious human rights violations of its own. There have been multiple calls for an outright boycott of the Sochi Games, specifically over the issue of queer rights. Though calls for a boycott are not uncommon, the Olympics draw criticism even when they’re held in countries that don’t put their citizens in forced labour camps or ban people from being openly queer. The Games carry with them rampant commercialism and huge expenditures for the host country, which some argue could better spend the money on education or social services.
These are all valid arguments against the merit of the Olympics, and there are many others the reader is familiar with — we need not write another treatise on doping or the dangers of fanatical nationalism. As a result of this whole mess of problems, I’ve talked to many people who view the Olympics in a purely negative light and would rather see them abolished altogether.
I see their points, and I don’t have counterpoints to them. But if I step away from this angle of outlook on the Games, another one becomes apparent. From the latter vantage point, I see the Games not in terms of politics or money but in terms of people. I see my friend Jan, who is currently training full-time, living off his savings and oatmeal for a year in a down-to-the-bone bid to cross-country ski for Ireland in the Olympics. I see my high school friend Travis Pollen, who was born with only one functioning leg but who trained so hard and swam so fast he eventually broke the American record in the 100 meters freestyle.
I look further afield to people I don’t know, like a girl from Afghanistan who trained despite death threats to be the first to represent her country’s women in the 100 meter sprint. I remember being taught in school how in 1936, Jesse Owens shot holes in Hitler’s theory of the superiority of the Aryan race with four gold medals in track and field, and with his famous camaraderie with German athlete Luz Long. This moment, where friendship and courage won out, at least symbolically, over racism and oppression, is remembered and celebrated over 75 years later.
Suddenly, the often-lamented pomp and hypocrisy of the Olympics seems outshone by the bravery and dedication of the people who make up the Games — people who get out of bed every morning with the goal of finding the little mental wall of what they can do and seeing if they can beat their heads against it until it moves two centimeters forward. There is, I think, some merit to that core essence of the Olympic dream.
The thing is, that Olympic dream doesn’t just affect Olympic athletes. It’s in the teenage boys who train for track cycling at my city’s velodrome and fall silent in awe when they see a local woman get on the track in the jersey of the world champion and ride her bike in a way that resembles flight. It’s in the old man with the impressive beard and even more impressive beer belly whose face lights up when he sees my Eddy Merckx cycling cap. He then spends 20 minutes telling me about racing old steel bikes in the ’60s, using newspaper clippings of the legendary cycling champion Merckx as motivation. It’s in the boys I went to high school with, who wore “Stop Pre” t-shirts in homage to the long-dead distance runner. It’s in dads that get active in local hockey teams, becoming mentors to little boys who want to be like Wayne Gretzky. It’s in community swim teams who look up to Phelps, and in little girls who play soccer looking up to Mia Hamm.
The vast majority of people who play any sort of competitive sport are not going to the Olympics, and that’s okay. In my eight or so years in competitive sports, I didn’t ever come close to the Olympics, nor did I try to. Actually, I often didn’t really win much of anything, but I learned a lot. I learned how to keep going when it’s not necessarily fun (and, of course, how it feels to be horribly, harshly disappointed in yourself when you don’t). I learned self-discipline, or, rather, I learned to fight to improve my self-discipline. I learned that for me, the private joy of riding my bike really fast far transcended the guys who made fun of me for wearing a dorky helmet, and so I learned, slowly, not to care about that.
In adolescence, sports taught me not to treat my body as a thing that should weigh as little as possible so that it matched well with straightened hair and a fake tan, but as something that could move physically and get things done, and that this was a more fun thing to focus on than some shallow visual ideal. After I stopped improving in track and field, I had to learn to let go of it, to recognize that while running around in circles could be important to me, it wasn’t all-consuming. I met and made friends with people much tougher and better at all of the above than I am.
All of these lessons transcend sport, and learning them is ultimately more important than winning. This, then, is where I see the main merit of the Olympics — Olympic athletes have the power to inspire everyday people to learn lessons similar to the ones competing taught me. My belief in the Olympics stems from my belief that those lessons are valuable. Sometimes it’s difficult to get out of bed and try hard at life, and if someone kicking a ball or riding a bike thousands of kilometers away can help someone else do that, then the Olympics are worth it.
This is not a rebuttal of the aforementioned problems of the Olympics, of course — I still don’t have one. I would love it if they became a less commercial event. I would love it if everyone got over the fact that some people are queer, and if this stopped being an issue in the Olympic context, or in any other context, for that matter. I would really love it if oppressive regimes stopped holding celebrations of high-minded human ideals. But I do want to support and admire the bravery and the hard work of the people who try really hard to attend them. Good luck in Sochi.