But if Willis makes it to the podium in Tokyo, will the world think his medal warrants an asterisk? The whole point of the Olympics, after all, is to bring the best in the world together to find out, well, who’s the best in the world. If covid-19 has kept some of the world’s top athletes from competing at their best, or at all, will the Tokyo Olympics meet that standard?
If the answer is “no,” here’s a follow-up: Has any Olympics met that standard? Not really — which is why it would be wrong for history to slight the Tokyo athletes.
Undeniably, concerns about covid-19 and the Tokyo Olympics’ stringent protocols have already reshaped the competition. Some top athletes couldn’t make it to Tokyo: Serena Williams, for instance, stayed home because she could not travel with her three-year-old daughter, without whom, she said, she “would not be able to function.” Becca Meyers, a deaf-blind two-time Paralympics swimmer, requires a personal care assistant to navigate the airport, pool deck and dining hall. When the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee denied her this support, Meyers dropped out, “heartbroken.”
Competition has also been affected by the year-long delay, which meant some athletes who might have dominated in these games peaked too soon. Craig Engels, one of Willis’s rivals in the 1,500 meters, finished first at the 2019 U.S. nationals and looked to be the favorite in 2020. At the U.S. Olympic Team trials last month, however, he missed making the team by half a second. And who knows how things might have turned out differently for Simone Biles had she been competing last year, at the top of her game.
On the whole, covid-19 has made these Olympics harder for most athletes. As the pandemic wreaked havoc on training schedules and facilities, athletes faced enormous challenges to stay in top form. Filipina weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz was forced to do squats in her kitchen, Cuban wrestler Daniel Gregorich worked out on his roof and Lebanese sharpshooter Ray Bassil resorted to practicing in a parking garage.
Sadly, athletes from developing countries have long been accustomed to suboptimal training resources. But this year, because the pandemic was truly global, even prominent athletes from well-funded Olympic powerhouses endured setbacks. U.S. swimmers Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel trained in their coach’s friends’ 25-meter backyard pool. Lilly King, who won two gold medals in 2016, swam in a lake with snapping turtles.
The 2020 athletes’ obstacles didn’t disappear when they arrived in Tokyo, either. Many endured eight-hour checks through customs and truncated timelines to overcome jet lag. They now must comply with elaborate covid-prevention protocols and live in fear of getting a positive coronavirus test, accurate or not. Setting world records won’t be any easier without 48,000 fans in the stands, including the athletes’ families — one of the great inspirations of any athletic competition.
Yet for all the differences this time around, the essential aspects of the Games haven’t changed. The pool is still 50 meters, the track 400 and the basket 10 feet high. As Willis’s coach, Ron Warhurst, likes to say, “Clock don’t lie.”
And the underlying assumption that the Olympics have always attracted the very best at their best, until this year, is flatly false. After World War I forced the cancellation of the Olympics in 1916, followed by the influenza pandemic, which ended only a few months before the 1920 Olympics, it’s a safe bet many of the world’s greatest athletes didn’t make it to Antwerp, Belgium. Both the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were called off because of World War II, making the 1948 London Olympics the first in 12 years. With so many world-class athletes dead, injured or simply unprepared to do their best, do those medals deserve an asterisk?
After 60-some nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the Eastern Bloc countries returned the favor for the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where the United States’ Mary Lou Retton dodged the Soviet gymnastic juggernaut en route to her five medals. That didn’t stop Sports Illustrated from naming her “Sportswoman of the Year,” or Wheaties from putting her on its famous box, without qualification.
The Olympics — which have taken place during and after disasters, floods, famines, world wars, civil wars and other tragedies across the globe — have never featured all of the world’s best, at their best. They have simply offered the best available, doing their best.
If Nick Willis gets to the medal stand, even if he has to drape the medal on himself — another covid-19 precaution — he will, and should, feel every bit as proud as any other Olympic champion. No asterisk.