Let’s get this out of the way up front: The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, have been messy. Maybe there’s a better descriptive: Something stronger like “ugly,” or something more merciful, like “uneven.” Trying to split the difference here, to accommodate a range of viewpoints. It really does depend significantly on what your Olympic priors were, and what you’ve come to expect from the Games. But, broadly: A difficult host nation (being kind here), a pandemic, very few fans, little natural snow, a U.S. star skier unexpectedly struggling every other day and talking about it in a way that was both refreshing and uncomfortable at the same time and very much tethered to the ongoing discussion of Olympic athletes, pressure and mental health; and that was all just the backdrop to a giant international doping controversy that grew into a referendum on age limits and the mercenary exploitation of young girls for medals and whatever else.
Almost none of the pieces in that last (very long, I know) sentence are directly connected. “Pandemic” and “very few fans,” yes, connected for sure. But “little natural snow” and “mercenary exploitation of young girls,” no, definitely not connected. However, the curious reality is that Olympics are evaluated in such a way as to lump together disparate realities to create a uniform evaluation. It’s rather like the Yelp reviewer who trashes a restaurant because their car got dinged in the parking lot (or praised the restaurant because the server who brought awful food was friendly). Good Olympics or Bad Olympics? But that’s not honest or transparent. The Olympics are – and long have been – described as one single thing, when in fact they are many things, even in a single day.
That is not to say that the scale doesn’t, in the end, tilt one way or the other. Find me someone who says the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer were a bad Olympics. Besides Tonya Harding, I mean. There is similar affection for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, but hang on, there was a giant doping controversy smack in the middle of that one, involving the husband of an American track and field star, one which in its own way was the precursor to the fast and furious, cops-and-robbers doping ecosystem of the 2000s, which has only endured since. But to the original thesis here: Olympic evaluation is not binary.
More to the point, the Olympics suffer from the once self-proclaimed goal of uniting the world. Please. To be sure, the Games are full of culture-crossing hugs and magnanimity, in which sports illustrate how humans are sometimes united by a greater commonality than divided by fractious ideologies. And those are beautiful moments. Yay! Lutz Long helped Jesse Owens. Most often those moments are left at the airport when athletes go home. And that’s okay. It’s really better to think of the Olympics as a sporting event. And if you care to go there, as a commercial enterprise that, like any commercial enterprise, is susceptible to the untoward intentions of bad actors.
Writ large, the Olympics are almost always messy. A global sporting event with thousands of athletes, the vast majority of whom will have only one chance in their lives to win an Olympic medal, almost can’t help but be a messy mélange of triumph and disappointment, with reactions thereof. These Olympics have been no different in the way that all Olympics are different, often revolving around host nations and geopolitics. These Olympics — and the ones in Tokyo last summer — have also been very different from any Games in a century in their need to navigate a worldwide health emergency. And the Games are nothing if not a reflection of the times, and the nations, where they take place. Sometimes for the good, and sometimes not so much.
But inside all that, a sporting event. Traditionally we ask a purity of the Olympics that has not existed for a long time. Games have been rocked by tragedy (Munich, Atlanta) and by protest (most notably Mexico City, but also Munich, and if you include boycotts and exclusions, almost every Games in history). More than a century ago, Jim Thorpe won two gold medals and was stripped for violating amateurism rules in place at the time, which is the height of messiness. (Thorpe’s medals were reinstated in 1983, three decades after his death).
Most often, athletes and performances to varying degrees rescue the Olympics from themselves and restore some degree of faith in the institution. Has that happened in Beijing? I won’t answer that question with an unequivocal yes, because I have already typed that the good-bad Olympics paradigm is unfair and misleading. But I’ll say this: We don’t ask the same purity of other sports that we ask of the Olympics, we ask only that they engage us. We have all those other sports, because they are worth having. So, too, are the Olympics.
These Olympics have been immensely complicated. Among Americans, the relatively drama-free medals won by Chloe Kim, Erin Jackson and Ryan Cochran-Siegle have been an exception. (Not implying each of them did not overcome significant hurdles to win those medals, just that the process in China unfolded with a blessed efficiency: Play, win, get medal, go home). Five Norwegian athletes won at least three individual and relay medals, all in cross-country skiing, biathlon or Nordic combined, which Norwegians seem to do at every Olympics with metronomic reliability.
Then there is Eileen Gu, the 18-year-old, American-born, Stanford-bound freestyle skier who, competing for China (her mother’s native country), won two golds and a silver with breathtakingly poised performances. She then followed with equally breathtaking press events in which she adroitly did not unpack the wider issues of her participation. It remains unknown whether she renounced her U.S. citizenship to compete for China, which does not allow dual citizenship. It remains unknown whether she will become the athletic face of China and how she — or China — might leverage that position. These things remain unknown because they are Gu’s business, but her position as a (somewhat mysterious) multinational star was a through line of the Games.
American skier Mikaela Shiffrin, 26, came to the Games as the third winningest World Cup racer in history, and already with six World Championships and three medals (two gold) from two previous Olympics. Shiffrin had squirmed in the past with Olympic chaos (postponements, heightened media scrutiny), but few foresaw an outcome where she would ski out of her three best events (giant slalom, slalom and the slalom half of Alpine combined), and leave the 2022 Games with no individual medals at all.
Fewer still foresaw the daily unburdening in Shiffrin’s post-race media interactions. After each of her races, she talked to any media that asked, and was stunningly raw. It was unusual in the extreme, and to listen was to waffle among admiration, empathy and worry. Twice on the night of her last individual race (the combined) she called herself a “joke,” a self-characterization that landed hard; Shifrrin is not a joke — she’s a demonstrably great skier, and delightful person, who had a really bad week. But her willingness to open a vein again shed further light on the mental strain on even the best athletes in the world, much like Simone Biles last summer.
Then the moment, of course, that overwhelmed the Beijing Olympics, which came Thursday morning in the women’s singles figure skating free skate. Russian skater – sorry Russian Olympic Committee skater — Kamila Valieva, 15, had come to the Games with some figure skating experts calling her the best skater in history. Then came the news that she had tested positive for a banned substance, the mighty clamor that followed, a CAS hearing and further news that Valieva would be allowed to compete but that there would be no medal ceremony.
It was all astounding, not only because it was unfair to every other skater that Valieva participate, but also because it seemed wildly unlikely that a teenager was doping herself and that those responsible had behaved horribly in drugging a child. It all felt… dirty. You know what happened next: Valieva fell apart in front of the world, finished, and then cried like a child afterward… because she is a child. But the outrage that followed could help change age limit rules and could finally compel appropriate punishment for Russia’s systematic doping.
There’s no question that uncomfortable moments complicate the advertised aura of the Olympics. But they also underscore that the Olympics are living history, both compelling and damaged, evoking joy, sadness, outrage. The core power of the Games remains: Athletes giving over their lives in pursuit of a disc hanging from a lanyard, almost always accompanied by deep sacrifice. Representing their country (or at least, a country). That will never change. The rest evolves.
In the end, the Olympics are worthwhile not just because they coddle us with perfection, but because they challenge us with flaws.
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