These Tokyo Olympics have proven the Games are better reformed than removed

These Tokyo Olympics have proven the Games are better reformed than removed

In the search for a tiebreaker in the men’s high jump competition at the Tokyo Olympics, officials were pretty much down to which guy’s uniform they liked better or whose name would be easier to spell.

And that second one would be no help whatsoever, because the competitors were Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy.

So they approached the two men together, after each had cleared every height up to 7-9 5/16 feet without missing, and after each failed the allotted three attempts at 7-10 3/32. They began to explain the potential procedures for determining which would leave with a gold medal, and which would leave with a silver. Barshim interrupted fairly quickly:

“Can we have two golds?”

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“It’s possible,” the official said, then tried to continue selling the prospect of a “jump-off”.

The discussion was over, though. The two men, good friends despite years of furious competition, looked at each other, slapped hands and embraced: They would share the greatest prize in their sport. We all have seen Michael Jordan dunk, Simone Biles soar, Mike Trout chase down an impossible fly ball. For all that magnificence, it would be difficult to find a moment in sports so beautiful as the one Barshim and Tamberi shared with all of us.

And only the Olympics could have provided the stage.

There is a movement, best illustrated by the protest staged on the day of the Opening Ceremonies two weeks ago, to do away with the Olympic Games. First staged in modern times in 1896, the Olympics have grown massively: from 241 athletes in nine sports, to 11,090 athletes in 33 sports, including skateboarding and speed climbing. Oh, and also to a winter sports version.

The Olympics have been dogged by controversies over bid procedures that led to a scandal regarding the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake City and, most disconcertingly, cost issues that have plagued many host cities and nations since at least 1976 Montreal Games. The Olympics are a human creation that have morphed into big business, so it’s no surprise they should be afflicted by greed and power plays and self-aggrandizement.

Author David Goldblatt, who wrote a book on the matter called, “The Games: A Global History of the Olympics”, told the New York Times: “The Olympics are unreformable, and I think, on balance, they do more harm than good.”

The problem is, this statement could be made about pretty much every large organization, from government to religion to big business. If we were to eliminate everything that could possibly be corrupted or just plain wrong, what would we have left? (Hey, Styx and Kansas still aren’t in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, so we might even have to silence all music).

Humans can foul up pretty much everything if their concerns do not go beyond the room in which they reside. The United Nations was founded for this reason, its charter asserting the desire to address “economic, social, health and related problems” and to advocate “human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” The work done there could not be more important. Some of that involves mitigating disputes that might spill over into war, or addressing the global impact of climate change. We mostly are a better world because of what happens in those buildings along New York City’s East River.

The Olympics, though, are quite literally the only time the entire world congregates to engage in something wonderful. They have representatives from 205 nations: more than there are actual countries, because such places as Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong are permitted to field their own squads. Everyone is there for two weeks every four years — ideally, anyway — to pursue athletic excellence and achievement, which are not necessarily the same thing.

For American swimmer Caeleb Dressel, the goal in Tokyo was to win five individual gold medals and whatever became possible in the relay swims, and that is what he delivered. When Robina Jalali arrived at the Olympics in Athens in 2004, however, merely stepping onto the track as a woman from Afghanistan was an extraordinary moment, just a few years after those in charge of her country forbade girls like her even from attending school.

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An enormous fountain, called the Magic Fountain of Montjuic, resides near the center of Barcelona. Behind it are a series of steps leading up to the Palau Nacional, a massive art museum. When I covered the Olympics in 1992, I walked past these landmarks and saw them filled with a mass of people from all around the globe, jammed together but smiling at the beauty of one of the world’s great cities and the joy of gathering to celebrate this occasion. I’ve seen Michelangelo’s statue of David and the mountains of Maui and “Hamilton” with its original cast. But that scene in Barcelona ranks as the most breathtaking I’ve encountered.

There certainly are issues with the Olympics. Fewer cities wish to serve as hosts because of the enormous costs involved with building many venues that have no longterm use. The bidding process itself seems not to have been entirely repaired by the Salt Lake scandal.

Would it be tremendous if there was a never-ending rotation of cities with the finances and real estate to accommodate the buildings necessary for cycling and beach volleyball and water polo? Of course. That is not our world. It would not affect the charm of the Games to be held in a particular city, or series of cities, with venues already in place or mostly in place.

We have learned from Tokyo — with the venues largely empty because of COVID restrictions — that what happens on the field of play is what matters most. NBC has made use of a map of Tokyo and its surroundings to point out where a particular event is taking place, but it hasn’t mattered because almost no one is there. When the camera is turned on inside that building, we see a boxing ring or a wrestling mat or a basketball court, and we see athletes engaging in completing a dream they have pursued their entire lives.

We have seen Flora Duffy swim 1,500 meters, cycle 40 kilometers and run a 10K to complete the Olympic triathlon and win the first gold medal in the history of her nation, Bermuda, a tiny, beautiful island in the Atlantic with a population smaller than Carmel, Ind.

We saw the joy of wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock, the first Black woman to win a gold medal in her sport for the United States.

We saw trap shooter Alessandra Perilli win a bronze medal to become the first ever from San Marino, a republic comprising only 21 square miles in the Apennines Mountains, to stand on the podium. And then the nation won two more medals, another in shooting and one in wrestling.

We saw video of the delirium contained in a room full of classmates back in Seward as teenager Lydia Jacoby came from behind to pull off a major upset in the 100-meter breaststroke and win the first swimming gold for the state of Alaska, which is known more for ice than water.

These are moments only the Olympics could have given us.

“I look at the Olympic Games as the most powerful way to promote global unity,” Billy Mills, the gold medalist in the 1964 10,000 meter run, told NBC Sports. “We are all related.”

The erasure of this quadrennial celebration would not mean there would be no more corruption or abuse of power in the world. It would continue on, in different incarnations. But the dreams peculiar to Olympians — including merely to become an Olympian — would die.

The Olympic Games are not perfect. They can be improved. But neither are they simply a worthwhile endeavor. They are essential.





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About the Author

Marie Maynes
Marie Maynes is a Sports enthusiast and writes for the Sports section of ANH.