# 15/08/2021 - Tokyo 2020: A Love Letter To The Olympic Games

The primary cultural discriminator between Millennials and Zoomers in Australia is the fact that only the former experienced the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. If the towers falling twelve months later marked our collective loss of innocence, then these games were our sentimental zenith. The depressive malaise that hangs spectre-like over both cohorts can appear uniform to those over the age of 40, however, there are subtle distinctions to be gleaned (mainly related to hope - that poisoned chalice). Contrast the agitated neediness of Millennials, whose lives have amounted to a gradual lowering of expectations, with the irony-poisoned nihilism of a generation who have never known a time before terror threats, forever wars, financial crises, pandemics and impending climate catastrophe. Our narcissism is their solipsism. Where we are nostalgic, they yearn unspecifically.

Twenty years since "the best Olympic Games ever", the quadrennial event remains inspirational, albeit for different reasons. Now it operates as a salve, not just for the monotony of COVID-driven lockdown, but as a broader counterpoint to 21st-century life. Rather than reflecting our values, its appeal lies precisely in its defiance of them. While watching the games this past month, I was struck by the incongruity of a spectacle replete with symbolism, grand narratives, traditions and romanticism in an era that sneers at such antiquated notions. Take, for example, Pierre de Coubertin's Olympic Creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

In this age of selfish individualism, how should we think of sportsmanship? My first impulse is of course to scoff at such an ethos, and yet last month I found myself buoyed by vision of high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Muta Essa Barshim of Qatar giddily celebrating their shared gold medal; by skateboarder Okamoto Misugu's teenage competitors lifting her on to their shoulders after she fell and missed the podium; by Andrew Gaze fighting back tears after Australia's Boomers won their maiden medal. For three weeks we allowed ourselves to indulge in simplistic storylines; we watched Cedric Dubler scream Ash Moloney home in the decathlon and disengaged our cynicism; we witnessed Saia Sakakibara racing her BMX bravely for her brother and asked no questions; we saw US gymnasts embrace Russian peers and read too much into it. Recent societal progress has been an exercise in refining and emphasising the worst in us. The Olympics is us at our best.


Image by Nathan Saad.

# Amateur Hour

The historical amateurism of the Olympics did eventually yield to modern realities in the late 20th century, but the unprofessional spirit remains largely intact. Now that the Sadim Touch of capital has poisoned almost every aspect of our existence, there is a jarring beauty in watching somebody pursue excellence for its own sake. While remuneration varies drastically across the 33 sports, it remains true that the vast majority of Tokyo's 11,656 participants were not there for financial reasons. Even the draw of prestige seems fairly minimal, with most interviewees endearingly media untrained and diffident in the limelight. No. If you are at the Olympic Games, you are almost certainly there for the love of your sport.

In some respects, the competition here can appear fiercer than that of the free market, but this is illusory - in fact, they are nothing alike. Take, for example, the battle between Ariarne Titmus and Katie Ledecky in the pool. While their rivalry was palpable in the lead up to these games, once they hit the wall for the last time it dissolved into post-swim interviews that could not have been more laudatory or mutually respectful. This is because the competition of sport is finite - for a 100m sprinter, it can last less than 10 seconds! Ultimately the siren always sounds, the finish line is always crossed, the judges always submit their scores and conflict can give way to the solidarity of shared experience. There is no such respite in the ubiquitous, unceasing competition of our capitalist system, a system in which our jobs follow us home, all activity is commodified and advertising pervades our leisure time. There can be no post-race embrace for us, but we still love to witness it.

So high is my regard for the Olympics, that I believe some of the world's most lucrative sports should be excluded. The men's football competition would be my first pick, farcical as it was in enforcing the arbitrary condition that all but three players in each team must be under the age of 24. Additionally, many clubs do not allow their top players (some earning tens of millions of dollars per year) to compete at the Olympics for fear of injury. While I can not argue with their rational desire to protect investments, in my puritanical view, anybody who wins a gold medal at the Olympics should be able to say, without qualification, that they are the best in the world. Any sport that threatens the sanctity of the Olympic Games should be excommunicated!

I'm not totally pollyannaish about the financial realities at play here. Certainly, some individuals profit handsomely from the Olympics and this is still (as with any job) an arena of exploitation. Plenty has been made of the dictatorial management style of the IOC, the eye-watering sums paid for broadcasting rights and the economic bind many host cities find themselves in, but these are not the foci of this piece.

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# Mental Health in Sport

One of the biggest stories of these Olympics was Simone Biles' withdrawal from many of the gymnastics events she has dominated for the past eight years. Her decision was quickly heralded by the uniquely sycophantic sports media as "courageous" and "inspirational", but I must admit I couldn't quite follow their logic. I am a big fan of Biles, but she was transparent about the fact that her retirement was not a result of the very real trauma she has experienced in her life but rather due to a dangerous condition known as "the twisties" (where a gymnast experiences mid-air disorientation). In light of this, the decision appears less courageous than sensible, especially considering she was participating in the team competition at the time of her withdrawal. In general, my view is that athletes and journalists should show more discretion when publicising mental health struggles. Yes, we must destigmatise these conditions, but not at the expense of trivialising them. In a similar vein, I have a friend with Coeliac disease who can fairly blame the eye-rolls he regularly receives from wait staff on all the gluten-free dieters who wantonly bastardise his diagnosis. Anyway, isn't some level of performance anxiety at a globally-televised performance - the culmination of a lifetime of effort - perfectly normal? Is it any less banal than a clinical diagnosis of depression at a funeral?

With that said, I am not seeking to downplay the prevalence of mental illness in our society. On the contrary, there is an abundance of empirical evidence indicating that the conditions under which we live are especially conducive to depressive, anxiety and substance abuse disorders (amongst others). A leading theory of intrinsic human motivation is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and it is an illuminating prism with which to compare the Olympic microcosm with the environment of the outside world. Proponents of SDT argue that all self-driven behaviour (that is, behaviour free from coercion) can be explained by three key drivers: autonomy, competence and relatedness.

# Autonomy

One of the alleged advantages of neoliberal capitalism, is the freedom it facilitates, but what is the nature of this freedom? Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between two competing forms of liberty: positive and negative. Positive liberty is the freedom to take control of one's life and act according to free will, whereas negative liberty (a less ambitious objective) is freedom from external constraints. Autonomy is the positive version of freedom, and the freedom neoliberals spruik is its negative counterpart. Our lives are generally unfettered by direct coercion and yet self-mastery remains an elusive goal. We are "free" to make highly constrained choices - KFC over McDonald's for instance - but if we truly had autonomy and if our time was truly our own, would so many of us choose to spend 40+ hours of every week labouring for somebody else's gain? Olympic athletes, on the other hand, exercise true autonomy. They repudiate societal incentives and dare to risk everything for the love of their craft.

# Competence

Neoliberal societies like ours also trade in insecurity and self-doubt. This is by design. Competence is certainly a motivator for us - it drives us to work harder and consume more - but modern life is structured in such a way that we never truly achieve that lusted after sense of accomplishment. We futilely chase it like Achilles and the tortoise in Zeno's famous paradox. The rare moments of fulfilment we do experience are fleeting and tend to be followed by anxiety (promotions at work, for example, are typically coupled with imposter syndrome). By contrast, the achievements of Olympians are absolute and tangible. They can hold their success in their hands, even bite it. But gold medals must remain forbidden for the rest of us, lest we lose our drive.

# Relatedness

There is manifestly a genuine sense of comradery felt between competitors at the Olympics. I have already touched on several examples of sportsmanship and solidarity in this article, but even the Olympic village is reminiscent of a commune. Stronger still are the bonds between teammates in the many non-individual events. Compare this with the fierce individualism and alienation of late-capitalism. Long ago we did away with churches, community groups and sports clubs; we shrunk our governments (our primary communal forum) and privatised our shared assets; we atomised and receded into ourselves.

If autonomy, competence and relatedness are all vital to our sense of wellbeing, then how is it that we find ourselves in a society that nurtures exactly none of these desires? Once again, I contend that the allure of the Olympics lies in its rejection of contemporary values. It operates as a reprieve and charms through, not despite, its atavism. While the games are not as financially unsullied as they once were, there remains an endearing amateurism to the event (one of Australia's biggest stars of Tokyo 2020 was Ariarne Titmus, but the only advertising I saw her in was a TVC for a dishwasher). The Olympic Games unashamedly embodies outdated notions of sentimentality, tradition and community. They promote patriotism that isn't racist, rivalry that isn't destructive and inspiration that isn't mawkish. Rather than capturing the zeitgeist, they defy it, and in doing so entertain, energise and transcend.

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