I hated the Olympics. I hated them the way I hated Super Bowls, and World Series, and every other mass gathering of mass media digesting mass stories for mass consumption.
Both summer and winter I avoided watching the Games, avoided talking about them, and I especially avoided covering them, with an amount of energy that eventually would embarrass me.
Because, in 2008, I was assigned to cover the Summer Games in, of all places, Beijing. And so I went. And so my ignorances, my prejudices, and my cynicisms evaporated, and I fell in love with the Olympics.
Now, as the planet suffocates in the grip of a still-emerging pandemic, the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo have been postponed. And here I am, stunned not as much by their delay, which was inevitable and wise — the novel coronavirus would have relaunched from Japan like a J-Pop supergroup — as by my disappointment at it.
I miss the regular sports, too, especially considering the inevitable story arcs Philadelphia’s teams were traveling. I looked forward to seeing Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons return from injury and save Brett Brown’s job by leading a 76ers run to the NBA Finals. I eagerly anticipated watching Flyers forward Claude Giroux, the best athlete of the past decade in Philadelphia, finally drinking from Lord Stanley’s Cup.
I more eagerly awaited these Olympic games. Maybe you did, too.
But here’s my solace, and yours: The Olympics, whenever they do occur, will be more relevant than ever. In an era of paranoid nationalism all around the world, the next Olympics will herald a new dawn of international unity.
That’s the biggest lesson I learned from both those 2008 Games and from the 2010 Winter Games that followed in Vancouver:
We are in this together.
This is truer now more than ever before in my lifetime.
We are on this planet together, breathing the same air together, drinking the same water together, bleeding the same blood together. And we are dying from the same diseases. Together.
The Tokyo Games were due to begin in late July, but we’ll be lucky to see them happen within a year. This will crush the dreams of scores of athletes who’d begun their track to peak at midsummer, but those training regimens imploded as COVID-19 cases exploded to nearly 400,000 confirmed cases and more than 16,000 deaths worldwide, with most charts still arcing skyward like contrails of a rocket ship. Calls for global lockdowns are only beginning to be heeded, required medical supplies are alarmingly low almost everywhere, and, in a matter of weeks, if not days, trivialities like the modern pentathlon will recede in our minds as we begin to bury and mourn.
A hurricane of misery is upon us. It will deliver horrors unimaginable. One day, though, will come our hour of deliverance.
The Olympics will herald that hour.
We will appreciate this congregation of excellence with even purer and more abundant goodwill. These waters are not uncharted.
World wars canceled the Games of 1916, 1940, and 1944. But the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, Belgium, on the heels of the Great War, served as the genesis of the world’s aspiration to peace; it debuted the Olympic Oath in its original version, and it featured the release of doves to signify the hope for harmony. The 1948 Summer Games in London, after the world teetered on the brink of insanity, further ratified that aspiration.
I never regarded the Olympics this way until I was forced to chronicle them. Before that the Games were a necessary ritual to be endured, like a family reunion, or a colonoscopy.
That changed forever.
Once dismissive of the inevitable drama that surrounds gymnastics, I became immersed in the divergent back-stories of accidental star Shawn Johnson, who came to the sport because she was an overactive toddler from Iowa, and her — literally — pedigreed teammate, Nastia Liukin. Once disturbed by his ubiquity, I became captured by the charisma of speed skater Apolo Ohno.
Once derisive of the barely costumed beach volleyball players, I became enchanted by the athleticism and grit of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor.
I’d traveled plenty by 2008, but those Games in China revealed things about the world to me that a casual tourist cannot see. Behind the veneer of efficiency I witnessed the fringes of oppression; the acceptance of tyranny; the fear of individualism.
Two years later in Canada, I saw people smoking weed in the park while cops rode past on their bicycles; in its way, also a life-altering experience.
Both sites furnished the athletes, the press, and the spectators with the conveniences and amenities to which we have become accustomed.
By contrast, the 1948 London games were notable for their lack of amenities. In fact, they were known as the Austerity Games. Considering the economic injuries COVID-19 might impart on global marketplaces, we might see a diminished version when the Tokyo games occur.
That won’t matter. They will be delightful regardless, because they will be. They will return us to a normalcy; hopefully, a better version of normalcy. And in that, they will further achieve their mission.
The Olympics, in their most unadulterated form, never were intended to be the lavish, indulgent displays of wealth and power they have become. They were meant to symbolize mankind’s quest to become a more perfect being; to compete “for the glory of sport,” not just honor of country.
Because, as this plague will remind us again and again, we are all in this together.
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