There’s the corruption of the International Olympic Committee, which predates the pandemic but feels more blatant amid the covid nightmare. The Games were delayed last year because of covid precautions. This summer, with the risk more severe, the IOC insisted on holding the Games for one reason: money. NBC wants to make up the billions it paid the IOC for TV rights (which it gets from the never-ending commercials everyone must endure to watch the Games).
There’s also a big part of me that finds it depressing that the Games are taking place in front of almost no one. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Opening Ceremonies. I distinctly remember the cheers that went up and the chills I felt being present at past Olympics as different countries’ teams proudly marched in, waving to every corner of the packed stadium.
And yet, I’m glad the Olympics are taking place, and I find myself becoming more riveted each night.
There’s one reason: the athletes.
For most competitors, the Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To tell your kids and grandkids that you were an Olympian — regardless of whether you bring home a medal — is a rare honor, especially in sports that don’t produce dozens of multimillionaires or household names. For archers, table-tennis players, kayakers and fencers, this is the pinnacle.
Delaying the Games in 2020 dashed the Olympic hopes of some athletes. Canceling or again postponing these Games would have ended even more dreams. Most of the athletes who didn’t get to compete in the Moscow Games in 1980, thanks to President Jimmy Carter’s boycott, or the Eastern Bloc’s boycott of Los Angeles in 1984, have never gotten over it.
And it’s not just the competitors who miss out. Dave Gavitt was supposed to coach the 1980 men’s basketball team. Olympic trials were held. Among those who made the team were Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre and Maryland’s Buck Williams. None ever got to compete in an Olympics.
Gavitt was preceded as the coach of the U.S. team by Dean Smith and succeeded by Bob Knight — both of whom led the U.S. men to gold medals. “I’d have loved to have done what Dean and Bob did,” Gavitt said in later years.
So far in these Games, we’ve seen two of the world’s greatest athletes not meet their Olympic goals, with Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka losing in the third round of the women’s singles and gymnastics phenom Simone Biles withdrawing from the women’s team event and the individual all-around because, as she put it, her mind just wasn’t right to compete.
That’s the Olympics — moments of glory; moments of heartbreak. And because they happen only every four years, they matter so much more to everyone involved.
From multiple-medal-winning stars to those whose highlight is just being there, most athletes are seeking one thing: the chance to compete. They want to see all the work they’ve put in come to a climax. Countless athletes have told me that the highlight of their career was seeing their flag raised while their national anthem was played.
These Games differ from past Olympics beyond the absence of cheering crowds. Heck, under the strict covid-19 protocols, the athletes have to put their medals around their necks themselves.
But this is the Olympics. In the first week, U.S. swimming great Katie Ledecky was beaten twice by rising Australian star Ariarne Titmus, and then we watched Ledecky sob from exhaustion and relief after winning gold in the 1,500 meters. Winning means that much more when you are no longer unbeatable. And 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby, from the tiny town of Seward, Alaska, stunned the swimming world by winning the 100-meter breaststroke.
For me, the saddest moment so far came in the women’s 100-meter butterfly. Eighteen-year-old Torri Huske of Arlington, Va., who is about to start at Stanford in the fall, led for most of the race before fading late to finish fourth — missing a medal by one one-hundredth of a second. Butterfly was my best stroke as a kid. I felt as though I knew exactly what Huske felt in her arms those last few meters.
She’ll remember the race for the rest of her life. She won silver as part of the medley relay, and maybe she’ll get another solo chance in Paris in 2024. Regardless, at least she can always say she was an Olympian.