Commentary: Trying to Remember What the Olympics Are All About

The Winter Olympics are wrapping up in Beijing. And it’s certainly been an interesting and controversial Olympic Games. Of course, there hasn’t been an Olympics without controversy in a long time. But these Games in Beijing brought a lot of issues into the spotlight long before the Olympic flame was even lit. And then there’s the controversies that popped up after that Opening Ceremony that nobody (or maybe some) ever saw coming.

With all of that negativity and controversy surrounding the Games, it’s hard to remember exactly what the Olympics are really supposed to be about. But throughout these last two weeks, there have been glimmers of hope and positivity that are welcome distractions from the darker side of these Games. It’s even absurd to think that the positive aspects are the distractions instead of the negatives that have made all the headlines.

But let’s take a step back in order to try and make sense of the Olympics and their relevance and place in the world moving forward.

I remember back in 2015 when the IOC announced that Beijing would host the 2022 Olympics over Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was a very close vote, but Beijing would win out in the end. Even though Beijing is definitely not known for being a snowy winter getaway. The lack of snow obviously raised some questions as to why Beijing was favored. But that would only be the beginning of the controversy.

In the years after the decision, the IOC’s bidding process (deservedly) came under fire for the corruption involved in the awarding of Games. Not to mention the high price tag for the Games which many say have negligible benefit for host cities, yet result in a basic windfall for the International Olympic Committee. (Especially thanks to the billion-dollar rights deals with media conglomerates around the world.)

In the years leading up to these Games, the issue of human rights in China gained a renewed (and again, deserved) spotlight. As well as China’s aggressive maneuvers in lands and waters south of the country and the oppression and censorship of its own peoples.

Because of that, calls to boycott these Games grew louder and louder. Especially as the world was still coping with COVID-19 which originated in China. Whether from a lab or in nature is still being debated. But that’s not really the point here.

The point is that a confluence of rising controversy and scandal, both for the IOC and for the host country, threatened to mar what should be a positive, uplifting and fun two-week event. A celebration of the world being able to come together in friendly competition.

Many people refused to watch a single minute of Olympics coverage, not wanting to give host China any sort of validation. Nor reward media rights holders like NBCUniversal with their viewership, in turn affecting their ad revenue, for supposedly supporting an oppressive government regime.

But in the midst of the furor in the weeks and months leading up to these Winter Olympics, I was a bit perplexed by the discussions.

The Olympic Games are obviously an opportunity for the host country to welcome the world to their land. Being able to show off their people and their culture to a global audience.

What gets lost in all the hyperbole of cable news and Twitter punditry is that the Chinese government does not equal the Chinese people. And watching figure skating, curling or ice hockey does not equal pledging allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.

I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. But I am able to separate any feelings I have for the Chinese government from my enjoyment of watching sports. Me choosing to watch alpine skiing does mean I condone the Chinese government’s documented treatment of Uyghurs. Me believing Hong Kong is a democracy or that Taiwan is a country does not mean I can’t enjoy snowboarding or bobsled. My proud wearing of a shirt with the words “West Philippine Sea / 菲律賓西海 doesn’t prevent me from cheering on Team USA in speed skating.

Basically, you can watch the Olympic Games and also believe the Chinese government is doing some bad things.

And why is that possible? Because the Olympic Games are (or at least, should be) about the athletes. For these Winter Olympics, that’s 2,871 athletes from 91 countries. All of them coming together for friendly, but fierce competition in 109 events in 15 disciplines of seven sports.

Being able to have people from around the world come together like this is always a good thing. Especially as the world continues to be a tension-filled powder keg. Perhaps the Olympic Games being able to be held every two years is a positive and hopeful sign that the world can be a peaceful place. People of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, culture, religion; All coming together, proudly waving their flags and representing their homes and their fellow countrymen.

I remember watching the Olympics for as long as I can remember. I’m not much of an athlete myself. Which is probably why I enjoy watching real athletes instead. And while we in America can watch everything from football to baseball to basketball and more every week of the year, the Olympics would always be an opportunity for me to enjoy some sports that only really pop up on television every four years.

It is always a thrill to be able to watch people from all over the world competing in these exciting sporting events. Even more fun when you have athletes and teams you can root for.

And it’s the inspiring stories of determination and perseverance that should take center stage at the Olympics. Where athletes from small countries with a lack of resources can stand shoulder to shoulder with well-funded athletes from richer countries and be on a level playing field. Seeing athletes from all backgrounds competing and succeeding appeals to our most basic of senses.

As just viewers, we obviously can’t imagine what it’s like to actually be competing. How it must feel to win or lose. Especially when the Olympics are life-long dreams for these athletes. Training day in and day out to reach what is supposed to be the pinnacle of sports.

Unfortunately, the basic fabric of what should be a positive event was ripped to shreds in this second week of these Games. The doping controversy involving the Russian figure skater, competing of course under the team “Russian Olympic Committee” due to a “ban” (loose a definition it is) ripped off a band-aid and exposed that behind what is supposed to be a happy, positive and uplifting event is a dark and corrupt underbelly that could jeopardize the future of the Games.

What are the Olympics all about? It’s a question that has been given a new context and perspective after these Games in Beijing.

For me, I know what the Olympics should not be about. They shouldn’t be about politics. They shouldn’t be about filling the pockets of powerful people. They shouldn’t be about abusing young people to further selfish goals and pride.

Again, the Olympics should be all about human accomplishment. Triumph and competition. FAIR competition, that is. The Olympics provides an opportunity for athletes from all different types of backgrounds to come together on what should be a level playing field.

Of course, one might point out that even before arriving at the Games, the playing field is already titled when athletes don’t have the same resources to train as others might.

But that’s part of what makes the Olympic Games so exciting. Because even with those unfortunate inequalities, the spots on the podium are never guaranteed. The most well-funded and well-trained athlete aren’t handed a medal before the event starts, after all.

It bears repeating, but just because I’ve enjoyed these two weeks of competition doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten or I condone any of the atrocities, or oppression or aggressive behavior of the host country.

And that’s because The Olympics are more than just about political posturing.

Strength, determination, courage and the power of the human spirit is on display every day of the Olympic Games. I, for one, love to watch it all. And I have watched a lot of it the last two weeks. I saw a lot of it last year during the two weeks of the Games in Tokyo as well.

Are there things that need to change when it comes to the Olympic Games? Absolutely. Mike Tirico delivered this excellent closing monologue at the end of NBC’s Thursday night primetime coverage.

The International Olympic Committee needs to be reminded of what the Olympics are supposed to be about. The world coming together for fair, clean competition and all the inspiring and hope that come with it. There were many examples of those positive aspects these last two weeks. But for how much longer we’ll be able to enjoy them, is up to the people in charge to finally make changes.

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