The nicest Olympics ever

In Tokyo, nationalism is taking a back seat

Olympic rings.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

When American superstar swimmer Katie Ledecky lost the gold medal to her young Australian rival Ariarne Titmus in the women's 400m freestyle final on Sunday, I expected open disappointment. Bitterness. Maybe even a gratuitous camera zoom on her face if she started to cry.

I definitely didn't expect her to beamingly embrace the enemy. Even when NBC asked for her reaction — apparently trying to drum up a dramatic conclusion for their much-promoted "race for the ages" — Ledecky didn't take the bait. "I can't be disappointed with that, that was a good time for me," she said. "It was an awesome swim by her."

But while Ledecky was a notable class act, she wasn't an outlier either. Over the opening weekend of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, if there was one resounding theme, it was the niceness of the games. Gone, seemingly, are the days of rooting for the U.S. to clobber its ideological rivals in an athletic proxy war. In, instead, is a competition that is defined by shared admiration and fist-bumps.

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That's new, to say the least. "For the vast majority of the Games' history," wrote Politico recently, "their dirty, open secret has been that ruthless, zero-sum geopolitical competition, not sports, really gave the quadrennial competitions their sizzle." Even long after the Cold War ended, it's still been a point of national pride to beat China and Russia in the medal race; the most mild-mannered, apolitical Americans can transform into raving, U-S-A!-chanting superfans when the Olympic rings rise.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has put all athletes, regardless of nationality, in the same boat. Training for the Olympics during lockdown was universally difficult, and the postponed Summer Games were never guaranteed to even happen. Every athlete in Tokyo had to overcome setbacks that no Olympian ever faced before. That shared backstory gives the Games a unique sense of camaraderie, apparent even when watching at home. While there are still marquee matchups, like that between Ledecky and Titmus, athletes seem more considerate than cutthroat. No wonder; after all that everyone's been through in the past year-and-a-half, even old nemeses are welcome faces.

The friendly atmosphere of the Olympics this year is only enhanced by the addition of climbing, skateboarding, and surfing — sports that are traditionally more recreational than competitive, and as a result, have built-in, tight-knit communities of athletes who collaborate and support each other outside of contests. That's not to say the athletes are any less serious than, say, track and field stars, but it does lend itself to feel-good moments like Japan's Momiji Nishiya and Brazil's Rayssa Leal, both 13, embracing and fist-bumping after taking first and second place in women's street skateboarding.

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That supportiveness isn't just limited to the new sports, though. Because Japan's strict COVID-19 protocols prohibit spectators, including family members, athletes have had to turn to each other in the immediate aftermath of processing a victory or loss — something they've so far done with endearing poise, grace, and support. Caeleb Dressel, the U.S. star swimmer who led his team to victory in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay, didn't make his newest gold medal about himself, instead tossing it to the teammate who'd swum in his place during the preliminary round. And the women's gymnastics teams — some of the fiercest, most high-profile competitors at the games — have made a show of having each other's backs, with Simone Biles going on the record to support her fellow athletes who prefer to wear unitards instead of leotards.

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The nicest Olympics ever might not last beyond Tokyo. While Japan is a relatively uncontroversial host country (COVID-19 snafus notwithstanding), U.S. lawmakers have already started to call for moving the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics out of China in protest of the country's treatment of its Uyghur minority population. Though it's unlikely (but not unthinkable) that the U.S. will actually boycott the Games, there will almost certainly be ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China in the run-up, leading to extra attention, expectation, and weightiness whenever athletes from the opposing nations happen to meet on the slopes or in the rink.

That's not bad news for NBC. Friendly Olympics probably don't do as well as ones where Americans feel like their national honor is at stake — and while it's too early to make any conclusions, the dismal viewership of the Games so far is likely at least in part due to the fact that camaraderie, not competition, seems to be the overriding theme.

But while Ledecky's effusive sideline interview might not be a primetime producer's cup of tea, there's something refreshing about seeing athletes competing with such open appreciation and respect for each other. The niceties get at the heart of why we love the Games. Enjoy every hug while you can.

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