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CORRUPT AND JOYLESS, HAVE THE OLYMPICS LOST THEIR PURPOSE?
The “Ghost Games’’ barely resonated, raising doubts about long-term relevance in a changing world where host cities don’t want staggering cost deficits and elite athletes aren’t having fun
At long last, the pompous thief atop the Olympic movement has justified his existence — that is, beyond his Brinks Truck robberies of host cities. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said Sunday night at the Closing Ceremony that he feared Tokyo would be remembered as the “Ghost Games.’’
Thank you for the nickname that will endure. These WERE The Ghost Games, watched in limited numbers during a still-raging pandemic while providing only brief glimpses of of the emotion and joy that normally define a unifying sports festival. Minutes before his comment, Bach should have been reminded of this hollow reality when the p.a. announcer requested applause for a reduced procession of marching athletes.
There were only 1,000 guests scattered inside National Stadium, so the cheers sounded like faint echoes. The 11,000 competitors mostly had gone home, victims of the coronavirus even when only 436 Games-related people have tested positive since early July. Or, at least, so claimed King Bach, who isn’t to be trusted with damning facts, having stuck Japan’s taxpayers and government with a potential $30 billion in losses and the usual legacy of white-elephant venues. Merrily, he achieved his solitary purpose of feeding his economic mega-blob with the aid of broadcast co-conspirator NBC, which is paying $7.75 billion for rights through 2032 yet struggled to muster viewership that shrunk 53 percent since 2012 in London and 49 percent since the 2016 Games, which closed in Rio de Janeiro with an all-out dance party.
Tokyo ended with a morgue scene.
“We did it — together!’’ said Bach, chirping to crickets.
At least no one died in the Olympic bubble, as far as we know, though outside the protected zone, new COVID-19 cases are exceeding 5,000 a day as the big heist leaves town. In the empty aftermath, we are left to ask an existential question: Why did all of that just happen the past 16 days and nights? What exactly was the point? Was it worth all the billions, all the health risks and all the isolation — just so the IOC can re-load its coffers and NBC can turn a wee profit for 7,000 hours of coverage while extorting viewers to buy Peacock streaming subscriptions? Was Tokyo the latest example of a sports enterprise persevering through a global crisis? Or was it another ruthless money grab that used and potentially abused athletes who, by and large, aren’t compensated fairly for their time?
Curious how the most celebrated U.S. athlete of the Games, swimming beast Caeleb Dressel, was bland about it all. “Some parts were extremely enjoyable,’’ he said, obviously referring to his five gold medals. “I would say the majority of them were not.’’
Yet U.S. javelin thrower Kara Winger, who finished 17th in her event, was pleased the Olympics proceeded, even without spectators in a somber daze. “We have more ahead of us, as the world faces the pandemic,” she said, “but I’m happy it happened. It feels very unifying.’’
We were hoping the athletes, always the heart-and-guts core of any Olympiad, would carry Tokyo with their stories and performances. Some were inspirational, from history-setting American sprinter Allyson Felix to the one-name-only triumph of Quinn, a Canadian soccer star who became the first openly transgender athlete to win gold. But the overwhelming takeaway centers around athletes who weren’t having much fun — namely, Simone Biles, who arrived as the Face Of The Games and departed, as one crusty pundit called her, the Head Case of The Games. If that is a harsh assessment, ignoring how she and many of her U.S. gymnastics teammates were sexually abused by since-convicted team doctor Larry Nassar, the Biles drama will linger as a nationally divisive mystery.
In the eyes of many Americans, she was a hero for withdrawing from the team and all-around competitions because she didn’t feel mentally up to the Olympic challenge. “My mind and body are not in sync. … At the end of the day, my mental and physical health is better than any medal,’’ she said, saying a case of “the twisties’’ had made her lose awareness in mid-air. To others, such as myself, questions remain: Did Biles prefer to bow out than lose … and fail to meet massive expectations? The biggest Tokyo story became a fierce and racially tinged debate over mental health, juxtaposed against the traditional Olympian’s mantra of survival over surrender. After days of soul-searching, Biles returned to the mat and won a bronze medal in the balance-beam event. By the weekend, she was looking happy and well in various Instagram posts, one that featured her in a tie-dye bikini.
“Sweet like candy,’’ Biles wrote.
Tell me: If it’s OK to lose or walk away if you aren’t feeling well, as Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka theorized, why have an Olympic Games? How can NBC demand appointment TV amid such uncertainty about an athlete’s emotional framework? “I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,’’ said Osaka, who came for the Opening Ceremony honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron, then departed with an early loss in the tournament. In that vein, explain the reigning men’s tennis giant, Novak Djokovic, who was looking for a Golden Slam — an Olympics title combined with four Grand Slams in a calendar year — only to throw more tantrums and lose.
Even Felix, who surpassed Carl Lewis as the most decorated U.S. track athlete, sounded joyless. “I’ve been afraid that my worth is tied to whether or not I win or lose,” she wrote before her 400-meters race. “But right now I’ve decided to leave that fear behind. To understand that I am enough.” Later, after her defining athletic moment, she said, “I can’t wait to get home. I’m counting the days, there are so few now.’’
It’s among many reasons why the Olympics, as we know them, might not have a shelf life throughout the 21st century. Oh, they’ll carry on through Paris in 2024, Los Angeles in 2028 and Brisbane in 2032 because NBC is contracted. But will the Games still resonate as they once did? NBC will dismiss this as an old-school view and counter that it’s all about streaming now, the three million minutes of digital content consumed on its Tokyo platforms. I’ll retort that the Olympics need sustained superstardom, now more than ever, and that modern life at its fastest, 24/7 pace isn’t conducive to creating must-watch icons when most disciplines are ignored for four years. Without Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, and with Biles in retreat, the stars of the Games were Dressel and, I suppose, Kevin Durant, who saved a sluggish USA Basketball effort from national shame. The journeys of both were followed only sporadically.
The Olympics aren’t in trouble — yet. At some point, cities will realize the staggering costs, which include bribing the IOC for the bid, aren’t worth the residual benefits. Know how Japan could have used $15.5 billion? According to a study by the University of Oxford, 300 hospitals could have been built, or 1,200 elementary schools. The pandemic might convince Planet Earth — and even the denialists at NBC — that international sports festivals no longer are sensible. Pete Bevacqua, head of the NBC Sports Group, tried to speak big ratings into existence when he said before the Games, “I think the world right now needs an Olympics more than ever. We’re going into this with a tremendous amount of optimism, and we really feel that it’s going to be something special.”
It was wishful thinking.
Such blind optimism shouldn’t be conveyed about the Winter Games, scheduled to begin in just six months in Beijing. Again, why are they doing this? What exactly is the point? COVID-19 will continue to disrupt the world — in China, birthplace of the pandemic, the Delta variant has caused new outbreaks and lockdowns. Furthermore, why would President Biden and other world leaders want to send athletic delegations amid China’s deplorable record of human rights violations?
KIng Bach, of course, is mum on China. But if the TV money is on the table — and it will be, as always — the IOC will pocket it. “Our responsibility is to deliver the Games,” committee spokesman Mark Adams said. “It is the responsibility of others — the United Nations, who have been very supportive of the Olympic Games, and governments to deal with this — and not for us. The IOC has to remain neutral.”
Neutral … and full of it. Only Thomas Bach, his corrupt pockets filled again, could call Tokyo a rousing success. “The Games far exceeded my personal expectations,’’ he said. “In many cases, you did not realize that there were no spectators. Maybe in some cases you could even experience the feelings of the athletes closer and better than being surrounded by so many spectators.” Spoken like a man who has conned the world again.
At best, Tokyo was an act of desperate perseverance for athletes living their greatest moments. Maybe not for Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka, but certainly for the triumphant U.S. women’s water polo team, whose victory helped America fend off China in the races for most gold and total medals.
“Obviously the world has gone through a hell of a lot the last 17 months … so I don’t want to diminish that. But what every single one of these athletes up here, and these coaches, and these teams and every single Olympic athlete and coach and staff member that has been here to get to this point, is a frickin’ gold medal in itself,” coach Adam Krikorian said. “I’m telling you right now. There hasn’t been enough written and said about it: Just to get to this point has taken a lot. And I’m saying this now, and I’m about ready to frickin’ break down because it’s been hard. I think it just takes you back to the beauty of the Olympic Games.’’
If his hair was wet, it was because his players had asked for his phone so they could toss him into the pool. Sadly, tragically, no spectators were in the building to celebrate with them, and few were watching on TV. The Ghost Games, in the end, were an illusion.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.