The 32nd Summer Olympics that just ended in Japan was held in a bubble but could not escape the calamities of this time.
Rows of empty seats paid sad tribute to the pandemic that is spiking in Japan and elsewhere across the world. Athletes competed under severe, even crippling heat, harsh testament to the extreme weather that is the product of heedless human impact on our climate.
Sports pages hyped the competition for the most gold medals or total medals as an emerging Cold War faceoff between China, Russia and the United States. On the field, however, the athletes once more expressed the true spirit of the Olympics.
The best in the world competed fiercely at the highest levels of their sport. Their skill and conditioning reflected years of discipline and training. With level playing fields and one set of rules, athletes from different countries, cultures, races and religions competed on the basis of their ability and their character, not on the color of their skin or the nature of their religion.
Champions from Fiji, Kosovo, Qatar, Venezuela, Uganda, Jamaica, Cuba and Croatia and some 65 countries in total captured the gold. When the playing field is even, the rules are public and the goals are transparent, we all win.
Their rivalries were fierce, so too was their camaraderie. Many athletes trained in virtual isolation during the pandemic, suffering the year-long Olympic postponement. Some won gold, such as Karsten Warholm of Norway and Sydney McLaughlin of the U.S. in the 400-meters hurdles, breaking previous world records.
When Tamyra Mensah-Stock became only the second U.S. woman to win gold in wrestling, her tearful celebration and irrepressible jumping became a global social media hit. When the dynamic Simone Biles chose to withdraw rather than risk injury in gymnastics her teammates rushed to support her; gymnasts across the world defended her when she came under criticism. Then she showed the grit to come back to win a bronze medal on the balance beam.
The athletes recognized and paid tribute to their competitors. They cried together; they embraced and cheered together. Gianmarco Tamberi, the Italian, embraced Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar after they agreed to forego a jump-off and share the Olympic title in the high jump. In the 100-meter hurdles, Luca Kozak helped lift Yanique Thompson after both tumbled to the ground. Norwegian triathlete Lotte Miller consoled Belguim’s Claire Michel, sobbing after finishing last.
And despite the strictures of the organizers, the athletes demonstrated that they were citizens as well as athletes. Even before the games opened, the women’s soccer teams from the United States and Sweden, Britain and Chile, New Zealand and Australia took a knee or joined arms in an overt gesture against racism.
As the games end, the challenges we face across the world are only increasing. Olympic athletes will join in protesting the efforts to suppress the vote in the United States. The movement for Black lives will continue to build. Women will continue to demand equal rights at work and on the playing field.
The Tokyo Olympics provided a clear lesson in the imperative of joining together to fight the pandemic and to address the challenge of global warming. It also provided a clear example of what is possible at home and across the world if we all play by the same set of rules.
We can compete without turning to violence or war. We can win or lose and still respect one another, across lines of race, religion, gender and nationality. Global warming may end up turning the Summer Olympics into the Fall Olympics, but the Olympic spirit should not be lost amid the profit-making, the national rivalries, the ideological and racial divides.
The Olympic spirit shows us the way out and up.