The Great Ethical Dilemma: Is It Okay to Enjoy the Olympics?Photo Courtesy of Getty Images TV Features Tokyo Olympics
First things first, let’s state the obvious: These Olympics are a disaster, and they’re a disaster on every level, from the micro to the macro, the personal to the institutional, the societal to the global. Name a level, and I’ll show you a disaster. The latest news is that yet another prominent Olympic figure in Japan has been fired. This time it’s the opening ceremonies director, and the crime was holocaust jokes he made on TV. Somehow, that’s less horrific than the composer who was forced to resign over egregious acts of school bullying against disabled children that he bragged about in interviews, and those two are just the tip of the iceberg:
Kobayashi’s Holocaust joke and Oyamada’s resignation were just the latest issues to plague the Games. Yoshiro Mori resigned as organizing committee president over sexist remarks. Hiroshi Sasaki also stepped down as creative director for the opening and closing ceremonies after suggesting a Japanese actress should dress as a pig.
This doesn’t even get into alleged bribery by Tokyo officials to secure the Games from the IOC (which, to be fair, likely happens at every Olympics since the IOC is wildly corrupt), and careful readers will also notice that I also have not mentioned the word “COVID-19” yet. Writ large, Japanese efforts to get their populace vaccinated have been an absolute disgrace, and that’s being generous. Prior to a last-minute push, in May, the national vaccination rate was 1.6%. You did not read that incorrectly: One point six percent. It’s now around 20%, but only because of a desperate attempt to undo what can only be called bureaucratic mismanagement on an historical level. Between the government holding out for a homegrown vaccine (it never came), an anti-vax culture that somehow puts America’s to shame, the internal difficulty in getting approval for a foreign vaccine, and the absurd belief that Japanese people might be largely immune to COVID, heel-dragging was the order of the day. Today, the island is being ravaged by the virus, very few are actually protected, and the end result is that no international fans are allowed to come, no domestic fans are allowed to attend any event, and already we’re seeing athletes test positive and have their Olympic dreams dashed anyway. Yoshihide Suga, the prime minister, is rightly taking flack for ignoring medical advice that suggests canceling the Olympics, all while milking the public for billions of dollars just to make sure the games go through despite a public health crisis.
Keep in mind, as you read this, that Japan has known it would host the Olympics since 2013, and were gifted a one-year delay when the games were postponed from 2020 to 2021. Considering that, the lack of preparation is gobsmacking.
We are not done with Olympic-bashing, unfortunately, because we also have to consider the Olympics writ large, divorced from COVID. I’ll keep this part short, but basically, many smart people, including Spike Friedman on (old, good) Deadspin, argue that the Olympics are “untenable for any city.”
“The Olympics create unequal cities. The very nature of the games leads them inexorably to the problems that have plagued the Olympics for the better part of the last half-century: skyrocketing budgets, corruption, militarization of the police, environmental degradation, and displacement.”
There’s plenty of good reading on this topic, and it’s hard to digest it all without agreeing that the Olympics are a net negative for any city unwise enough to host them.
And now, nearly 600 words into this piece, armed with the knowledge that the 2020 Olympics specifically and any Olympics generally are harmful cluster****s, we get to the question posed in the title: Despite all of this, can we still enjoy the sports part?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve loved the Olympics for a very long time, and are probably a little sad to confront the reality of the damage wrought by the games at a time that should be defined by excitement. And I’ll put my cards on the table: I’m still going to watch and enjoy the Olympics, and I’m still going to make viewing guide spreadsheets and write about the actual events, despite it all.
Why? Because I love sports, of course, but in particular I love watching athletes compete in more obscure sports that I wouldn’t watch at any other time of the year. In my case, that encompasses everything from archery to rowing to more popular sports that I personally don’t have the bandwidth to follow outside the Olympics, like gymnastics and swimming. All of it is riveting when the Olympics come around; the athletes are incredible and inspiring, but there is an added, outrageous pressure—this is the biggest stage in their sport, and each athlete may only get one or two shots in a lifetime.
There’s also the patriotic element, and while that really doesn’t do much for me anymore, I have cared about and rooted for America’s Olympic athletes long after whatever romantic notions I held about my country faded. I don’t fault anyone who gets on the Team America kick for two weeks—it’s a safe space for national pride, have at it.
Bottom line, it’s not so much that I can’t resist the Olympics, as that I don’t want to. And in the moments when I pretend I’m not just blatantly ignoring the moral and ethical implications because I am, at heart, kind of selfish: Truly, there is absolutely nothing I can do about the Tokyo Olympics. As an individual human, I am powerless to effect any change in this regard, and they’re going ahead with or without me. Within that context, I am not morally compromised by watching and enjoying the sports themselves, because this is the world we live in and any kind of personal boycott would deprive me of some nostalgic pleasure while accomplishing exactly nothing when it comes to the larger issue. What’s the point?
Well, the point is that anytime you support an institution like the Olympics with your viewership—or, in my case, covering the athletes and events for distribution to others—you’re validating the institution and contributing to the revenue streams that keep it floating in its current form. It’s an annoying truth, that watching Simone Biles or Katie Ledecky perform incredible athletic feats is also being complicit in a corrupt, mismanaged system that harms real people in real ways, but it’s a truth nonetheless.
And yet, call it a sign of the times, or call it a personal failing, but I’m still going to watch. In my more lucid moments, I know that I can’t really justify that choice as anything but following my own desires, and clearly I’m okay living with that. And yet, I can’t pretend it’s the moral or ethical choice; it’s simply another instance, like ordering a package from Amazon, where the overwhelming ubiquity of malign capitalism clogs the senses, and asks you to either fight back on every front or, in most cases, to take the path of least resistance. I’m doing the latter, and you might too, but the least I can do for anyone who suffers because of these Olympics is own up to the fact that, rationalizations aside, this is me doing what I want in the face of a pretty obvious truth. Let the Games begin!
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