Tokyo Olympians Show Grit Can Be Graceful
Despite all the controversy, despite all the well-founded concerns about hosting the Summer Games amid a pandemic that has killed four million people worldwide and is currently hitting Japan, Olympic athletes have delivered time and time again .
I’m not just talking about the number of medals and world records here. I’m talking about something deeper. I’m talking about resilience, tenacious courage, and even kindness under pressure.
All are forms of athletic grace. In Tokyo for a week and a half, the examples have multiplied.
The grace of Simone Biles, daring as she returned to the fray, winning a bronze medal on beam days after retiring from team gymnastics competition to preserve her mental, emotional and physical health.
The grace of Dutch Sifan Hassan, stumbling and sprawling across the track in her women’s 1,500-meter qualifying series, then lifting and marching from a distance to catch up with the other riders, overtaking them all to finish first.
The grace in the way the athletes gathered in Tokyo, encouraged them to do so because during the pandemic they relied more than ever on others. One example among many: the Norwegian triathlete Lotte Miller consoles the Belgian Claire Michel, while Michel sobbed in the moments after finishing last.
Grace in the way the athletes weathered the pandemic, their elite level training was disrupted. In Tokyo, there are countless stories of how they stayed fit and held their shape.
Think weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz. She spent months stranded in Malaysia due to the pandemic, training freelance, building her own gym, and working out sets of weights she made from bamboo sticks and water jugs. .
In Tokyo last week, Diaz became the first athlete to win a gold medal for the Philippines.
She personified resilience, a description the International Olympic Committee often applied to these Summer Games, as they were taking place in a time of plague. Yet the IOC’s efforts to preserve the Olympics lacked grace.
After the Games were postponed for a year, polls still showed that most Japanese citizens wanted them to be postponed or canceled again. Many feared the threat of the virus and the new variants that could be brought in by the roughly 40,000 visitors, including athletes, support staff and the media.
This alarm proved to be justified. The island nation is so overwhelmed by the coronavirus now that much of the country is in a state of emergency. This week, new cases in Tokyo hit record highs.
Meanwhile, the athletes live as in a federal witness protection program. They commute from the Olympic Village or an officially authorized hotel to their sports venues and vice versa, their movements closely monitored, their state of health constantly monitored. They are never far from a coronavirus test.
The Games represent the pinnacle for most of them, something we have dreamed of for years. Olympic dreams usually include visions of performance under ideal conditions in front of loud crowds.
Ideal conditions? Olympic organizers were determined to mount their show in the scorching Japanese midsummer in Japan to boost television ratings. Had the Games been held in the fall, as it was when Tokyo hosted them in 1964, they would have faced a lot more competition for viewers. Nevertheless, the number of viewers fell for these real Summer Games, as the athletes were forced to perform in a furnace.
What about the noisy crowds? This possibility disappeared weeks ago. At many outdoor events, the most constant background noise comes from flocks of cicadas.
And yet, the IOC boasts of the spectacle it offers. Critical? What criticism? “This is all behind us,” said Nenad Lalovic, member of the IOC Board of Directors this week. “Nothing,” he added, “can stop us. “
Forget about the spike in virus cases among Japanese citizens and those linked to athletes and Olympic staff since the Games began. And epidemiologists who fear that the true effect of these Olympics on the pandemic will be known long after everyone has returned home.
At least we have the athletes that we can celebrate and learn from.
I think of the determination of the runner Christine Mboma, banned from the 400 meters, her best event, because she suffers from a rare genetic disease which results in high levels of testosterone. Intrepid, Mboma ran the 200 meters and won a silver medal.
I am thinking of high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim from Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy. They chose to forgo a play-off that could have decided the competition and share Olympic gold instead. They knew full well that they would be castigated by those who claim that there should always be one winner, that the split is low and, worse yet, unmanly.
But Barshim and Tamberi kissed their tie and each other. They showed no doubts about what they value most.
Neither is Raven Saunders, an athlete as proud and charismatic as in Tokyo, with her Hulk masks, spinning celebrations and willingness to stand up for her convictions.
After winning a silver medal in the shot put, she defied the IOC’s ban on demonstrating athletes and raised her arms in an X shape as she stood on the grandstand.
“I’m a black woman, I’m gay, and I’m talking about mental health awareness,” she told an NBC reporter, explaining the meaning of the X. “I suffer from a lot of depression, anxiety and of PTSD. I represent being at this intersection.
The symbol, she said, was for the oppressed.
Then, a few days after winning the silver, Saunders suffered a terrible loss: his mother passed away.
The IOC’s response?
Instead of giving up any effort to penalize her, the world sports organization said it would simply press pause before deciding to discipline Saunders for her display.
The Olympic organizers must get started. Saunders has already shown that she isn’t about to bow to their stupid rules.
Like so many other athletes in Tokyo, she has too much resilience, too much grace.
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