Can the Olympics Take the Heat?
Maybe every athlete went to the Tokyo Olympics secretly worried that they hadn’t prepared enough for the challenge. I know I did. Would my performance be affected by the 13 hour time difference? Could I endure the long hours in front of a screen while juggling my beer and my ice cream?
Fortunately, my months of indoor pandemic training – “Ted Lasso”, “The Last Dance”, “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” – have paid off. The rewards over the past two weeks have been countless, delicious and often astonishing. Briton Charlotte Worthington pulls off a 360-degree back flip to win the women’s freestyle BMX. Carissa Moore of Hawaii with the very first gold medal in women’s surfing. These exuberant high jumpers. Katie Ledecky. Allyson Felix.
For any other organism on Earth, competition is a strictly Malthusian affair: hunting, hiding, growing, spawning, repeating. During evolution, this tension has brought about wonderful morphological adaptations. Velvet worms. Ultraviolet flying squirrels. Electroactive bacteria. Monkfish and their living little friends.
Humans could be the first species for which this type of competition ceased to matter. (Of course, only a species with a disproportionate cerebral cortex would dare to think so.) So we invented the Olympics, a showcase of human motivation in its purest and largest niche. Canoe slalom. Hammer throw. Trampoline gymnastics. Table tennis. There is also meta-competition: new sports are emerging, duller sports (croquet, do you mind?) Are disappearing.
It is fair to wonder if such a species could not conceive and televise an even more noble competitive outlet. “What if nations compete for the best programs to reduce maternal mortality? Asked novelist Joyce Hackett on Facebook. “Competitive literacy rates! Countries with the most new readers reach the finals, and then once-illiterate citizens declaim their country’s greatest poets for victory. “
In less than a year – at a record pace – we have developed not one but several vaccines against the deadliest virus in a century. But we still struggle to persuade enough people to take them, even as the virus creates new variants of itself – Alpha, Beta, Delta – like a Greek contest all by itself. We assume we’re done with the old-fashioned competition, but it’s not over with us.
Already, some observers wonder if the Olympics have run their course as a business. The extreme heat and humidity in Tokyo has taken its toll on athletes – climbers, swimmers, runners, tennis players. (The Belgian field hockey team prepared for the conditions by training in a thermal chamber, and the Olympic marathon takes place 500 kilometers cooler.) A 2016 study published in The Lancet found that the warming climate would severely restrict future Summer Games. Winter athletes are increasingly limited in where they can train. Our competitiveness can put us out of the competition, both literally and figuratively.
This will make the viewing daunting, not to mention a daunting life experience on Earth. How are we going to have fun when the wonders of human sport and the natural world start to dry up? Ball race, maybe. Kitchen athletics. No doubt that one way or another, for better or for worse, we will still have curling.