The Olympic Games are over, and I feel it like a personal loss.
Like millions of others, I spent two weeks glued to a screen at the most incredible hours, marveling at what the human body can do, screaming and crying alone with each event on the parallel bars, on a track, in a pool or on a field. It’s been so many hours in front of the television and my tablet that I have become, literally, one with the screen.
These Olympics in Tokyo were not what we expected: the end of the global pandemic with a colorful celebration. The delay of one year promised a reward after the sacrifice – that if we behaved in 2020, this year would bring health and happiness. But it was not to be. The cursed Delta variant, the people who were not able to get a vaccine, and worse still those who could but did not want to get a vaccine forced games without spectators.
The fears that these would be Olympic games without a soul disappeared with the first shot from a starter pistol. Let me say it now: The Olympics are the best of humanity. We stop everything – wars, conflicts, pandemics – to watch the best in the world run, jump, swim, punch and compete. We can’t? Every four years – five for these games – we put aside the excuses.
There are many lessons from these Olympics. The first is that together we can beat Covid-19. Despite the few cases registered among the athletes and trainers in Tokyo, no event needed to be canceled.
I also believe we’re leaving these games with the clear impression that the Olympic athletes are not comic book superheroes, impassive and impenetrable, far from our reality. On the contrary, we felt them closer than ever. They also have their Kryptonite
The courage that U.S. gymnast Simone Biles showed as she publicly confronted her mental health issues will save many lives. “We are not entertainment,” Biles told a news conference to explain her decision to withdraw from competition. “We’re humans.”
It’s not often that a bronze medal – like the one she won on the balance beam – is so well deserved.
The Olympic defeats of two of the best tennis players in the world – Naomi Osaka of Japan and Novak Djokovic of Serbia – and their recognition of the enormous risks to mental health that international competition brings with it, have started the conversation for those of us who will never set foot on the courts at Wimbledon or Roland Garros. Anxiety and stress, especially in the middle of a pandemic, are part of our lives. The lesson is that they, the athletes, are just like us.
Or almost. Because the effort to participate in Olympic games seems superhuman. I lost count of the athletes who started to cry after their events. No matter if they won or lost. If was the end of their training, injuries, sacrifices and challenges that a normal person does not usually have to face. We saw, on television, the uncontrollable sobbing that make the body shake and the voice crack.
One example: The Italian Gianmarco Tamberi, who shared the gold in the high jump with Mutaz Barshim of Qatar, sobbed inconsolably on the track next to the plaster cast that kept him from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. That’s called discipline and determination.
Outside the Olympics, it is difficult to find human perfection anywhere. I watched two perfect dives – all 10s – from the 10-meter platform by Quan Hongchan, barely 14 years old. Nothing like watching someone at the top of her game.
The “nationalism light” of the Olympic games is the only version I can handle. It’s OK to support your country in soccer, basketball or water polo, although in the case of the Russians they compete under a different name. Russia was barred from the games for doping, so the Russian athletes – who were not involved in the doping – had to compete under the name of the Russian Olympic Committee.
Despite the nationalism, the celebrations draped in national flags and the implicit political contest to win more medals, all athletes in the gym applauded Simone Biles after her last performance, and Biles applauded the Chinese gymnast who won gold on the balance beam. Two runners from the United States and Botswana helped each other up after falling in the 800 meter race, hugged and crossed the finish line together.
Is there anything more encouraging and positive than that? That’s why I love the Olympic games and I lose sleep to see a simple pole vault, the flight of an arrow or a 13-year-old girl doing tricks on a skateboard.
My obsession with the Olympics goes way back. I also had an Olympic dream. When I was 15, I was accepted to train at the Mexican Olympic Sports Center. I started on the high jump – I managed to jump a few centimeters higher than my own height, which is not a lot – and after I was diagnosed with a spinal problem I went on to the 400 meter hurdles. My main goal for years was to train to compete some day in the Olympics. But the cracked vertebra did not get better, the doctors ordered me to stop training and that ended my Olympic hopes. I have never cried so much in my life. And my eyes still fill with tears today when I remember that.
I could not go to the Olympics. That’s one of the big holes in my life. I still keep, and almost revere, the credential issued to me by the Mexican Olympic Committee. But I was a journalist covering the Los Angeles games in 1984 and a spectator at the 1996 Atlanta games with my daughter Paola and the 2012 London games, accompanied by my son Nicolás – and the secret ambition to infect them with the Olympic spirit.
Meanwhile, I have standing date with the Olympics, like those lovers who promise to meet at a specific time and place. I clear my calendar. I make sure I have one or more ways to watch the events – I don’t discriminate against any sport – and I sit for days in front of the TV, absorbed, feeling like I am transported, sometimes in a state of absolute concentration. I watch, admire and applaud what I could never do.
When the games are done, I always get a kind of a hangover. I feel out of place. There are times I don’t know what to do, and I miss the athletes as though they are friends who went away. But I always keep the illusion of what is to come. And I know it’s only three years until the 2024 games in Paris.