Lifestyle

Hate the Rules, Love the Athletes: How to Deal With a Very Complicated Olympics

It’s a tough year to be an Olympics fan. Before the postponed Tokyo Games commenced this month, public health experts and spectators alike wondered if they should happen at all, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to ravage cities around the world, and Japan contended with its own low vaccination rate. (A Japanese poll conducted in May found that 83 percent of people were opposed to Tokyo hosting the Olympics this summer.)

Even beyond the pandemic, audiences began to wonder what exactly Olympic governing bodies were doing to support athletes: In April, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) confirmed it would continue to ban protests, a particularly disappointing decision in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s global impact last summer. The International Swimming Federation rejected Soul Cap’s application to use their swimming caps, which are designed for natural Black hair, in competitions. And athletes have shared that, due to certain Olympic rules, they’ve struggled to breastfeed their children at the games.

Alice Dearing, the first Black woman to represent Britain in swimming at the Olympics, wearing her Soul Cap.

Courtesy of Soul Cap

Not to mention, during Olympic trials, fans were devastated to learn that USA’s fastest woman Sha’Carri Richardson was disqualified from her event after testing positive for marijuana, despite the fact that marijuana is legal in Oregon, the state where she used it, and she disclosed that she used the drug to cope after her biological mother passed away.

And yet, even with all the problems, all the controversies, and all the systemic issues that we know make the Olympics often an unfair, unsupportive competition—especially for women and even more so for women of color—we can’t help but watch as exceptional athletes achieve their biggest dreams. Whenever I’m feeling low, I often go back and watch Aly Raisman’s inspiring all-around floor routine at the 2016 Rio Olympics. When she lands at the end, she cries of happiness—and so do I.

kavitha davidson

Kavitha A. Davidson

Courtesy

So how do we reckon with the complicated nature of being an Olympics supporter? This week, ELLE.com reached out to Kavitha A. Davidson, sports and culture writer at The Athletic and co-author of Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan, to discuss. The book, which she wrote with sports journalist Jessica Luther, dives into the issues plaguing sports and explores what it means to be a true-blue fan. Below, Davidson shares her approach to watching the games this year, and what we can all do to support the athletes we love so much.

A lot of people, especially women, felt conflicted about the 2020 Olympics. How do you feel about this year’s games?

Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan

There’s an entire chapter in our book about how problematic the Olympics are. They never live up to their economic promise. You bring in all of these weapons to amp up security, and those weapons stay after the Olympics leave town. Boondoggles of gigantic stadiums end up going unused for decades. The idea that someone like Vladimir Putin or a country like Qatar can use the Olympics to try to assuage their global image. But at the same time, Jessica and I deeply love watching the Olympics. Part of it is these sports don’t have a global showcase. Part of it is this is the biggest showcase for girls and women in sports. And that’s also a failure, at least in America, to have a proper professional apparatus for women’s sports.

“It’s the biggest showcase in the world. So it’s also going to showcase all of the things that are always wrong with sports and need fixing.”

The dedication of our book is, “To every sports fan who loves sports and just wants them to do and be better.” But there are some things that can’t be better. There’s no such thing as safe football. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a non-problematic Olympics unless you hold it in the same place every four years. As far as the younger athletes competing for the first time, you can recognize it’s irresponsible to have these games—it’s probably not good for public health—but you can also understand where these kids are coming from wanting to compete. Then you throw in Sha’Carri Richardson, the protest ban, the rhetoric surrounding Naomi [Osaka] and Simone [Biles], the Norwegian beach handball team being fined for not wearing bikini bottoms. It’s the biggest showcase in the world. So it’s also going to showcase all of the things that are always wrong with sports and need fixing.

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You also write in the book that you aren’t necessarily offering solutions to these problems. But do you have any advice for people who feel reluctant to support the games?

The original title of this book was How to Love Sports When They Don’t Love You Back, and halfway through reporting, we realized we can’t prescribe the “how.” We also realized no fan exists in a monolith. So much of this book is about accepting athletes as human beings, as varied and diverse as they are, and that also applies to us as fans. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution or pathway to reconcile these dilemmas because no one person experiences these dilemmas in the same way.

One of the things we’ve learned is to be kinder to ourselves when we don’t always know how to assuage our guilt—and to be kinder to other people when they might not go about this in the same way. If you’re able to enjoy sports without thinking about any of these other things, power to you. People who don’t experience these dilemmas need to be kinder to people who do.

sha'carri richardson

Sha’Carri Richardson won the 100-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June.

Patrick SmithGetty Images

Do you think we’ll start to see these institutions change in the near future? There was so much outcry over Sha’Carri Richardson being denied a spot at the Olympics, and so many others stood by Simone Biles when she decided to take a step back this week.

The other thing about being kinder to ourselves is that everything we write about in this book is systemic. We’re talking about ingrained systems that have had problems for decades, if not centuries. One individual fan’s actions or attitude can’t change that. Collectively, we do have a lot more power than we think. We saw that when public outcry and the Black Lives Matter movement finally moved the Washington Football Team to change its [formerly racist] name. But by and large, we’re just one person.

But I do see some progress. We’re opening the pathway for college athletes to get greater compensation down the road. The more sports media includes voices that haven’t always been there before, the more skeptical we can be of existing institutions, and the more accountability we can hold these institutions to. Sports, more than most other industries, are built on inertia. Our fandoms are usually set in early childhood. Because of that, sports are a perpetual money machine. So sports haven’t needed to adopt a ton or change a lot in these broader ways. That being said, the No. 1 way we achieve change is by threatening the bottom line. [Team owner] Dan Snyder didn’t suddenly have some “come to Jesus” moment where he realized the Washington Football Team’s former name is racist. It was because he got a letter from FedEx and Nike, sponsors whose investors told them, “If you don’t pressure him to change this name, we’re pulling our investments from your company.” So then the sponsors pressured him, and he had to change.

I think whatever way we can affect change is good. I don’t care if it comes about because of money being threatened or because people are actually evolving. I think it’s always going to be some combination of the two, but I think the fastest pathway to change is threatening the bottom line.

simone biles

Gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the team event and the individual all-around competition at this year’s games to focus on her mental health.

Laurence GriffithsGetty Images

Are there other ways you recommend supporting individual athletes, since that’s really why we’re all watching?

First, if you love women’s sports and want to see them get their fair due, follow the reporters who cover those sports. Write their editors or leave comments on their articles that you want more of this, because that’s the only way things are going to change. As far as supporting individual athletes, maybe it comes down to supporting them through what merchandise we buy or whose jersey we have on our backs. But again, these are institutional things. Especially when it comes to the treatment of the individual athlete, a lot of this is incumbent on the governing bodies, and a lot of that is also contingent on media, us doing our jobs better and treating these athletes in a more humane way. We pay for them to entertain us, but they don’t owe us all of themselves. They’re doing a job. They’re workers, they’re laborers. And frankly, we can get into a whole conversation about this country’s disdain for labor versus management, but the management class in sports are billionaire owners.

Remember that athletes don’t owe us their entire selves. They certainly don’t owe us their whole bodies, which is something we’re reconciling with right now with Simone [Biles]. They’re human beings. That’s hard to keep in mind because the thing we love about sports is these are human beings accomplishing superhuman feats. I always say sports are the closest we get to modern-day mythology. But the fact of the matter is they’re not gods. They’re flawed, and that’s okay. That’s actually what makes sports great.

“Remember that athletes don’t owe us their entire selves. They certainly don’t owe us their whole bodies.”

In a similar vein, you tweeted that so many of the people criticizing Simone Biles don’t seem to understand how truly difficult gymnastics is, and that’s partially because many who excel in the sport in America are women.

Yeah. I mean, there is the German gymnastics team that has chosen to not wear leotards. They’re wearing full bodysuits, and power to them. They should be able to wear whatever they want. I don’t think it makes you less of an athlete if you want to wear glitter and a sparkly leotard. It all goes back to really antiquated but long-standing notions about what an athlete looks like, who sports are for, the idea that the female body is too feminine, and therefore too weak, to handle strenuous physical exercise.

germany's pauline schaefer betz competes in the artistic gymnastics balance beam event of the women's qualification during the tokyo 2020 olympic games at the ariake gymnastics centre in tokyo on july 25, 2021

Germany’s Pauline Schaefer-Betz competes in the balance beam event at the women’s qualification during the Tokyo Games.

LIONEL BONAVENTUREGetty Images

Gymnastics, in particular, people don’t understand. People keep likening what Simone’s going through right now to the “yips.” But when Chuck Knoblauch has the yips for the Yankees in the ‘90s, he can’t just throw to first [base]. The equivalent of that in gymnastics is not landing from 10 feet in the air, or missing a rotation when there is a lightly padded metal bench inches from your head. Because these are sports that are deemed feminine, it’s very easy to dismiss them as not dangerous or not at the same gladiator level that we’d put hockey or football in. That’s just not the case.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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