Tick, Tick, Tick: Athletes’ Grueling Wait for an Olympic Moment
TOKYO – The Olympics, for all their charm, are a pretty cruel setup.
They are a four year time bomb. The best athletes in the world are given a date and time to perform. They prepare, often in solitude and anonymity, for a single moment in the calendar. It is getting closer with each tick of the clock.
As the countdown nears zero, a sea of strangers who expect to be entertained turns their collective gaze in their direction, eager to hand out pass-fail notes. Reputations are made or broken. Lives are changed.
No sporting event is like the Olympics.
“The scale of everything is a bit difficult,” said Naomi Osaka, after losing a tennis match in the third round after lighting the Olympic cauldron to open the Tokyo Games.
The timeline doesn’t care if you’re ready. Adam Ondra, considered the best climber in the world, recognizes this even before he reaches his Olympic moment, as sport climbing makes its debut next week.
“At the Olympics or any given competition, you’re just told to climb now,” Ondra said. “And you’ve been training for many weeks and months before, knowing you have to be ready for that day.”
In its usual outer realm of large rock faces, culture works in reverse. The point is to find the moment, not to give it to yourself. You tackle the climb at your own pace, at the time of your choice, on a day when conditions are perfect and body and mind are in sync.
If everything doesn’t come together, if the timing isn’t right for you, you walk away.
At the Olympics, Ondra is scheduled to start performing on August 3 at 5 p.m. Tic, tick, tick.
The difference is not just aiming for the present moment. The audience is waiting.
“It’s the biggest pressure I have ever felt,” said Ondra. “Because normally the only pressure I feel comes from myself. “
None of this is new to sports, but the dynamics play out in real time across the Tokyo Olympics. American gymnast Simone Biles is just one example, the greatest among many.
In the team competition on Tuesday night, she attempted a round. She didn’t feel it. She stopped. The timing seemed bad.
It was jerks, coming as the clock hit zero, when the world was listening to watch and judge.
She later explained that the joy of competing was replaced by the pressure to please others. Without it, the US women’s gymnastics team won silver.
“We hope America still loves us,” Biles said.
Hidden in that sad statement hides a twist: Who are the Olympics for? – and an echo of other athletes who feel the pain of disappointing strangers.
But it’s a complicated relationship. More than ever, athletes feel compelled to promote themselves, use social media to attract fans and please sponsors, some who provide the bulk of an athlete’s livelihood. Many in Tokyo have posted on social media regularly, sharing their experiences, balancing training and focus with shares and likes.
It may not be a coincidence that mental health issues are on the rise in the age of social media.
But bringing an audience to the Olympics can be a reminder that these faceless fans can look forward to something when the time comes. Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus, who won gold in her first two Olympic finals, said she removed all social media apps on her phone.
“It can be a little overwhelming at times,” she said.
There are around 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries competing in Tokyo. They all feel some level of pressure from the outside, especially if there is an all-or-nothing expectation to be successful. An archer from South Korea, a diver from China, a judoka from Japan, brother rowers from Croatia, a soccer player from the United States. They are used to winning.
The range of results becomes binary, at least on the public bulletin: pass or fail.
These Olympics have been made even more cruel by a year of delay since the pandemic. At first the countdown was interrupted, then a full year was added to the clock. And strict protocols meant that organized travel for the Olympics was severely limited – none of the usual family and friends who typically provide mental support. The people who usually share the experience, the believers and the hugs, are far away.
And with limited time for competitors in the Olympic Village (most of them could only register five days before their competition and had to leave the day after the competition) and limited interaction during their stay, the networks usual have been cut. The absence of supporters in the stands accentuates the feeling of loneliness. No one is there to encourage the effort, win or lose.
The surfer Carissa Moore, quadruple world champion, qualified for the Olympics more than 18 months ago. She was pissed off 20 minutes before her race for the gold medal.
“I had to call home and say, ‘OK, what am I doing?’ She said. “They’re like, ‘You know what to do.’ I don’t think that little voice of self-doubt ever goes away. It’s just learning to say, ‘Hey, shut up a little, I got it.’ “
Moore met the moment. She won.
Olympic tradition is filled with names of athletes who seemed numb to the pressure to perform on time, from Bonnie Blair to Michael Phelps, from Shaun White to Chloe Kim, from Carl Lewis to Usain Bolt.
Biles, until now.
His decision to drop the team event, followed by a decision the next day to withdraw from the all-around as well, sparked immediate conversations about sanity, the weight of expectations, across the device. Olympic.
The Olympics, like all sporting events, create more losers than winners, and some of the world’s most accomplished athletes couldn’t relate expectations to Olympic gold medals – from Mary Decker to Tyson Gay, Michelle Kwan to Lindsey Jacobellis, Ivica Kostelic in the 2004 United States men’s basketball team.
Sergey Bubka has broken the pole vault world record 35 times but only won one gold medal. Speed skater Dan Jansen fell or failed in three Olympics before winning gold in his final race. The 2004 US men’s basketball team had a roster of NBA stars and future Hall of Fame members and left Athens with bronze anyway.
This is also happening in Tokyo. Perhaps the biggest gold medal won so far has been table tennis, where the Japanese team of Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito surprised China’s Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen in mixed doubles.
“There is definitely pressure,” Xu said. “Each pair faces pressure, but our expectations and goals are different.”
This is true with a lot of Olympians. Swimmer Katie Ledecky arrived after winning five gold and one silver at two previous Olympics. She won silver in her first race in Tokyo, and already some have wondered what was wrong.
On Wednesday, she finished fifth in a race and then won a gold in the 1,500 meters. She missed her moment, then met the next, all in about an hour.
“People might feel bad for me that I didn’t win it all, but I want people to be more concerned about other things that are going on in the world,” Ledecky said. “The greatest pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself.”
This is what athletes often say. But it becomes clear that this might not be what they are feeling.
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