I’ve been pretty clear that I thought it was a mistake to hold the Olympics now in the midst of a resurging Pandemic, but hold them they did. NBC didn’t quite get what it wanted, as the ratings are apparently down quite a bit, and I’ll wait to hear how much money Tokyo lost without any foreign tourists (or even Japanese ticket-buyers). But they managed to get it done.
Probably the biggest story coming out of the Olympics is Simone Biles and all the events she withdrew from after getting a case of the “twisties” and having to prioritize her mental health. How much pressure there was on Biles can be seen by the number of commercials that featured her in the last month. At least she should clean up financially, regardless of how many events she withdraws from.
I remember asking myself why Biles even wanted to come to these Olympics. She’s 24 now — which is ancient for an Olympic gymnast — and she already cleaned up at the 2016 Olympics, where she won six medals, four of which were gold, including the gold for the all-around best gymnast. In her career she has won 19 gold medals, including the Olympics and World Championships.
What did she have left to prove?
We are so obsessed, here in the United States, with being #1 at everything. Michael Phelps, between Athens (2004), Beijing (2008), London (2012) and Rio de Janeiro (2016) won an insane 23 gold medals, including 28 medals overall. That’s more medals than most countries have won — for example, Ecuador (2 gold, 3 overall), Israel (1 gold, 11 overall) or Algeria (5 gold, 17 overall). It’s more than even some very big countries, like Nigeria (3 gold, 25 overall) or even India (9 gold, 29 overall), with its estimated population of 1.35 billion inhabitants.
Biles joins Naomi Osaka in getting us to look at the mental health of athletes, an issue that is long overdue. She’s already the greatest gymnast of all time, she really had nothing left to prove.
Russian Olympic Committee
The Russians brought a team this year that could not officially compete under the Russian flag. That’s because the Russians have been engaging in rather flagrant doping for years. In fact, systematic doping by the Russians has resulted in more than 200 Russian athletes caught doping at the Olympic games, with 43 medals having been stripped from Russian competitors (which is more than 30% of the global total). In 2019 the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russia from all major sporting events including the Olympic Games for four years. That ban was later reduced to two years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
So now the Russians can compete — with a few exceptions for individual athletes who were found to have violated doping rules more recently — but only under the banner of the “Russian Olympic Committee,” and only by hearing a snippet from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
The Russians are still competing and still counting up their medals. They still racked up 71 medals, including 20 gold, which is third after the United States and China.
I don’t know what the proper sanction is for Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. I just know that this — making their athletes listen to Tchaikovsky and not allowing them to march behind their flag — doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. The previous champion for Olympic doping was, of course, the old East German state, many of whose female athletes looked like they had been feeding on cow hormones. But I don’t think the current sanctions are going to discourage the Russians much.
(NPR has a very interesting article on how the Olympic medal table explains the world.)
Sports that don’t need to be in the Olympics
There are several sports that really don’t need to be in the Olympics because they get plenty of attention on their own. The three at the top of that list for me would include:
- Tennis, which has four highly publicized “Grand Slam” championships every year.
- Golf, which has four highly publicized “Major Championships” championships every year.
- Men’s soccer, which has the World Cup, the European Championships, the Copa America, and world tournaments for Under-17, Under-18, Under-19 and Under-21 players. (Women’s soccer also has a World Cup and several other tournaments, but is a more arguable case.)
There are other sports that have major international championships, including baseball, basketball, rugby, and ice hockey in the winter olympics.
The sports I want to see are the ones that you never see but every four years: table tennis, archery, skeet shooting, team handball, volleyball, badminton, kayaking, fencing, judo, rowing, sport climbing, diving, trampoline, water polo, and yes, even swimming.