How to Grapple With the Pandemic Olympics

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Very Olympic Today

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People like to say that sports bring us together. The Olympics in particular, we are told repeatedly throughout each broadcast of the Games, unite us and remind us of some sort of shared, universal experience. Well, in 2020 our world got a much different shared experience.

While living through the COVID-19 pandemic (which now has a worldwide death toll of more than 4 million) has had its differences from country to country and region to region, the totality of the disruption was felt everywhere, even by those who wanted to keep living as they always had. The pandemic forced many aspects of life to shut down, and it forced countless people, from elite athletes to regular joes, to isolate.

The pandemic, and the conversation around it, has been unavoidable for the last year and a half. The lead-up to these Olympics is no different. The month before the Olympics is always a great time to read up on the athletes who will be competing, and Olympian after Olympian has shared their story—unique yet familiar—of how timelines, training regimens and lifestyles were altered. It was the universal experience of 2020.

So the Tokyo Olympics are here and, much like the last year, they are going to be … different. The calendar does not match the branding. There will be no fans in the stadiums. There will be no family to cheer on the athletes (breastfeeding mothers had to fight just for the right to bring their infant children). The host city is in a state of emergency. A majority of the host country’s citizens don’t want the Games. Residents of the Olympic Village have already tested positive. Athletes will put medals around their own necks.

People are going to apply all sorts of adjectives to the 2020 Olympics. Most unprecedented. Most unusual. Weirdest ever. Worst ever, depending on how things go.

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I think our culture—and internet sportswriters are as guilty as anyone—has a tendency toward recency bias, looking for excuses to heap on the superlatives. The greatest game ever. The best highlight of all time. The most incredible [fill-in-the-blank] in history. So I want to be at least a little judicious before I call 2020 the most unprecedented Olympics ever. But I was born in 1987 and can barely make out anything before Atlanta in ’96, and this certainly fits the bill within my lifetime.

Peeking back further, there have been Olympics that were canceled altogether. There have been Olympics that were heavily boycotted. There was one in Nazi Germany. There was a different one in Germany where Israeli athletes were murdered in the Olympic Village. There have been plenty of unprecedented Olympics. We don’t have to turn that into a competition.

My colleague Michael Rosenberg wrote as much in this column before the 2018 Olympics—about how everyone thought he was going to die in PyeongChang.

I recently revisited this New York Times article from June 2016, six weeks before the Rio Olympics, that just lists paragraph after paragraph of problems in Brazil: a corruption scandal, an economy that had “fallen off a cliff,” infrastructure concerns, crime on the rise, the zika virus, a bike path collapse that killed two people, a state of “public calamity.”

The point I’m meandering around is that these upcoming Games are both troubled and troubling, in a unique way, but they also sort of fit in. A century from now, if this planet is still inhabitable to the point that people spend leisure time playing sports, we may look back at 2020 as just another of those strange Olympics in a whole laundry list of them.

But I don’t say that to minimize the particular concerns of the coronavirus or the people coming together amid it—not just the athletes, but the volunteers, staff, security personnel, the local healthcare workers who will be overtaxed if the Olympics become a superspreader event, and everyone in Japan who will feel the brunt of that impact.

And I also don’t say that to defend an Olympics that many find indefensible.

There are many would-be spectators who are fully out on Tokyo 2020, and plenty more who are fully out on the Olympics every time the five rings swear they’ll be a good investment for a city and then leave it behind. Not just because the IOC is an organization pushing these Games forward, but because it is the type of organization that makes you unsurprised it’s doing so.

Staging these particular Olympics is an ethically dubious proposition, though in many ways they all are, to at least some extent. So millions will still watch them, myself included.


So. Many writers, myself again included, are grappling with how to cover Tokyo. This year’s Olympics feature three types of wrestling: Greco-Roman, freestyle and coming to terms with your own complicity.

My assignment with this newsletter is to stay up all night watching the sports and write about them for an audience that will most likely sleep through a good portion of the action. It would be a little strange to accept that assignment simply to write for 21 days straight about how terrible the Olympics are. (Anyone can do that in the daytime!)

So you will probably see a more upbeat tone, but I am not ignoring the many issues in Tokyo. I mentioned them in my first edition of the newsletter and made them the main topic here in the second. I’m sure at some point I’ll write about the subject again, and I’ll share links when my coworkers do as well.

But I will still try to enjoy it, and my rationalization is to do so mostly for the athletes. Because they deserve it. It is not their fault there was a pandemic in an Olympic year. They waited a lifetime, and then another year on top, for the chance to reach the pinnacles of their sports and be celebrated on the international stage.

I know it may feel icky to watch at times. I also know that most seasoned sports fans have practice checking at least some of their conscience at the door to enjoy sporting events. People hate the NCAA’s exploitation of athletes but still watch college sports. People cringe at the NFL’s history with concussions but still devour coverage of the league. People will watch the World Cup in Qatar.

We all have a line where enough is enough, and we all draw it somewhere. For many, the Tokyo Olympics fall outside the boundary. That gets easier when you read that IOC President Thomas Bach deemed himself important enough to take a PR stunt trip to Hiroshima without satisfying local quarantine mandates.

Much of the coverage of the Pandemic Olympics will be framed around how it affects competition. There will be opportunities to argue about postponements, forfeits and inconsistent protocol enforcement. All of this will be familiar if you’ve followed any other organization that has played sports since March 2020.

The Olympics are starting imminently. They will go on without Coco Gauff, Bradley Beal, Katie Lou Samuelson and various others who have tested and will test positive. It is devastating for those involved, especially those who got vaccinated and took precautions seriously, but most viewers are sadly as desensitized to that by this point as we are to watching games in empty stadiums.

It is an unfortunate price to pay to be able to see some athletes at all. It does not make any of this fun.


In many ways, the Olympics are a television show, and the camera people are masters at keeping what they want in focus and blocking you from seeing what’s out of frame.

So I will choose to celebrate the athletes in the middle. When I am up all night watching water polo, I’ll do so with the understanding that the athletes waited their whole lives to be in that pool, in that tournament, on my TV. I will remember what every runner and gymnast and triathlete and archer and badminton player has done to get there.

But I will also be mindful of what’s off to the side.

This will be an ethically compromising Olympics, yet there will be great stories, too. Those are independent facts, even if it’s hard not to link them in your mind.

My hope is that we can still find a way to do what most of us really want every four years, which is to celebrate the power of sports and the athletes who are the best in the world at what they do. But another skill we’ve all hopefully sharpened over the last 16 months is being more aware of everything else going on in the world, too.

SI's Best

• Ben Pickman previewed the women’s basketball tournament, with Team USA eyeing a seventh straight gold. Six newcomers, but tons of star power.

• Chris Mannix wrote about Team USA men’s basketball team after its final exhibition game before Tokyo. “You think we’re stupid?” is a quote that jumps off the page.

• Avi Creditor compiled a list of the most intriguing players in the men’s soccer tournament. No Americans, but plenty of story lines.

• I have a Q&A with Helen Maroulis, the first American woman to win gold in wrestling, who is back in Tokyo after multiple concussions and a PTSD diagnosis put her career in doubt.

As a reminder, this newsletter is free if you sign up to receive it in your inbox. You can also subscribe to SI.com for unlimited access to all the other great stories on our site.

WHAT TO WATCH

The sports start … tonight! Really. The first event will be softball. Australia and Japan will get us started with first pitch at 9 a.m. Wednesday in Tokyo, which is 8 p.m. ET Tuesday and 5 p.m. on the West Coast.

The first action for Team USA is Game 2 of the softball tripleheader at 11 p.m. ET Tuesday against Italy.

For early risers: The U.S. women’s soccer team opens Olympic play against Sweden at 4:30 a.m. ET Wednesday. It’s the third of six games overnight.

Those are the only two sports in action on Day minus-2, but the rest are coming.

One final note: It’s been great to start receiving messages from readers! Please keep sending me tweets, Facebook messages or emails. I’ll get to them soon.

Thanks for reading.

—Mitch