The first Olympic Games I covered were in an alpine village in a country that no longer exists. Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, was a cheery place in 1984, despite limited resources, a town where you drank with the locals late at night and where, during the opening ceremony, they accidentally raised the Olympic flag upside down.
My first Summer Olympics came a few months later, in smoggy Los Angeles, where I rode a bicycle through heavy traffic to get to venues, and where Carl Lewis won gold medals in everything he tried.
Both were memorable events, the first for its intimacy, the second for its largesse.
I see neither of them when I look at the Games in Tokyo, with the opening ceremonies tonight.
In fact, I see nothing of the 12 Olympics I have covered in my career. What I see is vacancy, hesitancy, grim outlooks and names being crossed out every day.
These are the Anxious Games, plowing forward into the winds of a deadly pandemic, hoping against hope that, despite no fans in the stands, no support from the populace, and no assurance that the biggest stars might have to drop out when a lab test returns, somehow we’ll have a memorable two weeks.
And that people will watch.
This is mostly about people watching.
From the comfort of our homes, perhaps fully vaccinated and safe against COVID-19, we are encouraged to view an Olympics and a nation that is putting itself at risk for our entertainment. Money drives the Games, TV money most of all. The IOC stood to lose about $4 billion if the Olympics were canceled. You knew that wasn’t happening. NBC had reportedly raked in $1.25 billion in advertising. They weren’t giving that back.
So hoist the sails, damn the torpedoes, light the torch. Already a year behind schedule, these Games will come at us on two levels: the upbeat, homey, what-an-amazing-story-this-athlete-is of NBC’s glittery patina, and the somber tales of a nation that is only about 20% vaccinated and is yelling “Olympics Go Home” that you’ll hear from outlets not raking in cash from the Games.
It’s a strange occasion. The biggest and most worrisome sporting event of the pandemic. Because of this, some pundits have suggested that the Olympics are an idea whose time has passed.
Games still have real appeal
I know it’s vogue to suggest anything more than a decade old is part of a corrupt, ugly past that doesn’t match our brilliant current sensibilities. But the Olympics don’t fit that box. Quite the contrary. The Olympics transcend it.
Yes, the New York Times recently ran a front page story headlined “Let The Games Be … Gone?” which hand-wrung over the politics, money and corruption that have shadowed the Olympics, suggesting there are people who think the Games have so lost their way they should just stop.
Yes. Well. A few things. 1. That’s what the New York Times does. 2. This is hardly new. Do you think when Adolf Hitler hosted the 1936 Berlin Games there wasn’t politics or corruption? But Hitler’s Aryan supremacy ideas were blown apart by Jesse Owens’ four gold medals and the hug Owens shared with Luz Long, the German silver medalist in the long jump. Advantage: humanity. The Olympics provided that.
Money, corruption and politics have been with the Games for as long as anyone covering them can recall. But that’s viewing the Olympics from the top down. From the bottom up, they are still the ultimate dream-making machine. The wrestlers, fencers, equestrians, shot-putters — the athletes you don’t know and will never know — still ingest an immeasurable joy from making the Games, let alone winning an event. The friendships and memories forged in an Olympic Village are cherished for a lifetime.
I remember during the 1988 Winter Games, some American luge team members I’d befriended got me into the Olympic Village. They were all but squealing about the countries they saw represented in the cafeteria. Just knowing you were spending two weeks with the best athletes in the world made every one of them feel like a winner — despite the fact they didn’t come close to the podium stand.
At the end of my visit, they gave me a blanket from an empty bed, which had the Olympic rings stitched into it. I still have that blanket. I still think it’s cool.
A better option
Age or wokeness isn’t what’s wrong with the Tokyo Games. Timing is. The smarter thing would have been to push these Olympics one more year, then make up for the gaps certain athletes had to endure by keeping the 2024 Paris Olympics where they’re scheduled. It’s not without precedent. In 1992, the Winter Games were in Albertville, and two years later, in 1994, they were in Lillehammer. It could have been done.
Instead, Japan is forging ahead, and the price will be an Olympics of testing, labs and nervous foot tapping until results come in. Not to mention empty stands, masks on everybody almost everywhere, performances without fans, finishing kicks on the track that elicit no enthusiasm, victory laps with flags that go nowhere except in lonely circles. Every scratch due to COVID-19 will be trumpeted. If there are forfeits, the medal winners may face critics who think they should be asterisked.
So the athletes are being robbed of the complete Olympic experience. And the Japanese public is being endangered, in addition to losing out on the national pride a country can feel in hosting the world. This is more like the world dropping in on Japan when they’re taking a shower. “Go away” is the knee jerk response.
But despite all this, there will still be heroic moments. Unknowns rising to the occasion. Swimmers slapping the water in joyous disbelief. Pole vaulters bouncing from the pit with arms raised. There will be tears, there will be pride, there will be athletes with hands over their hearts when their national flag is flying and their anthem is being played.
These are still the Olympics. The strangest Olympics, yes. An unfamiliar, under-anticipated, uncertain gathering of the world’s best. They needed to be rescheduled, but they don’t need to be abolished.
Everyone during the pandemic has had to tuck and run and endure as best they can. Perhaps, in the end, the Olympics are no different. Either way, they’re here. Let the Anxious Games begin.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.