A Fan's Notes: The Olympics Are Everything Wrong, Everything Hopeful

Aug 12, 2016

American swimmer Katie Ledecky won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the women's 200-meter freestyle.
Credit Fernando Frazão / Agência Brasil / Source http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/rio-2016/foto/2016-08/natacao-rio-2016

It’s been a week since the Olympic flame was lit in Rio de Janeiro, and so far these Games have gone more or less as expected — for better and for worse. Amid all the storylines and golden moments, "A Fan’s Notes" commentator Victor Wishna muses on a larger, urgent meaning for all of us watching back home.

Ach. The Olympics — they’re such a letdown, amiright? I mean they come along every two to four years, promising to unify the nations of the globe, leaving world peace in their wake. But seriously, that, like, never happens. As one friend put it, “I always think they’re going to bring us together. But they don’t.”

Yep. Depending on whom you ask, or which commentary you consume, the Olympic Games, particularly those now underway in Rio, represent either all that’s hopeful in the world, or everything that’s wrong.

And, of course, both are right.

To think otherwise is to oversimplify intertwined but divergent narratives. The Olympics are not one story, but many. 

This Olympiad, the 31st, and first-ever in South America, has endured a litany of woes since before it even began: a blown budget amid a nasty recession and political crisis, plus unplanned pitfalls aplenty, from structurally unsound venues to repulsively polluted waters to importunate protesters, police with endless supplies of teargas, and, yeah, those pesky and potentially poisonous mosquitoes.

The Russians didn’t help, of course, deciding as they did to dope all their athletes. And when the International Olympic Committee banned some but not all, things got tense, especially around the pool. There were boos. Icy stares. Indignant press conferences. And enough televised finger-wagging to mortify even Bernie Sanders.

Not that all that many Americans saw it. According to Nielsen, viewership of last week’s opening ceremony was down 35 percent from the summer kickoff in London four years ago — and the trend has continued over the first nights of competition.

So perhaps many are missing the legitimately inspiring stories that emerge from the mess, the kind that fill columns and airtime between competitions. For the first time, stateless refugees, such as from Syria and Sudan, are competing on their own team under the Olympic banner. Nineteen-year-old Kathleen Baker, weeks after going public about the Crohn’s disease that often leaves her exhausted and in pain, swam the fastest backstroke of her life, claiming a silver medal that might as well have been platinum.

The legendary Michael Phelps, meanwhile, now an old man in his thirties, just pushed his record-breaking gold total into the twenties. And cruising to their event’s most-lopsided victory in more than 50 years, the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team is not just the nimblest, but the most racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse squad in the history of the sport. 

Indeed, the U.S. has brought the most female athletes to Rio — nearly 300, more than half of the American delegation—even as the Games themselves offer fewer events and medals for women, what the Wall Street Journal has dubbed “The Gold Ceiling.”

At the very least, we can appreciate the Olympics for what it really is: not a showcase for the best of the world as much as a platform — a medal stand — for the best in the world. And check the count — once more, the Star-Spangled Banner is rising and resounding above any other flag or anthem.

If that sounds jingoistic, I stand by it. Because that’s what we need right now — some of that good kind of nationalism that maybe only sports can provide, the us against them that means all of us.

In this season in which some in our politics have trumped common cause, and common sense, and common decency, the Olympics hold truths that should be self-evident: Though never perfect, America is great …again. And we are stronger … together.

Victor Wishna​ is a writer, editor and sports fan.  He lives in Leawood.