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TOKYO — The spirit of the Olympic Games shines too brightly to be dampened by a mask. The pandemic couldn’t kill our love of sports. If anything, it made us more deeply cherish that distinctly athletic thrill of celebrating goosebumps with fist bumps.
As the Summer Games begin on a Friday night in Japan, 364 long and anxious days after COVID-19 delayed the original start date, every seat in the stadium can serve as a stark reminder of somebody we love who’s no longer here. But every time a U.S. athlete waves at the TV camera to send a kiss back home, it will also be reassurance nothing can defeat our spirit. We survived a year nobody wants to repeat because we hung together through the tears.
What emotions will the athletes from 205 countries share during the opening ceremony for the Games of the XXXIInd Olympiad? I think it’s fair to say the sentiments will be conflicted. And complicated.
“Well, it could be a collective grief from the pandemic that’s still obviously raging,” U.S. soccer icon Megan Rapinoe said. “In a lot of parts around the world, it could be relief in finally getting to do things again. And hopefully a sense of joy of having something to do and something to watch.”
Basketball star Sue Bird, a four-time Olympic champ who is engaged to be married to Rapinoe, will be a flag-bearer for Team USA during the parade of nations. “It’s an honor that is bigger than the moment … and it will last forever,” Bird said.
She understands the Games make hearts go thump in red, white and blue, because despite our differences, the Olympics bring out our shared pride for living in America.
We love watching gymnastics, track and sports we only pay attention to every four years in spite of stupidly overblown budgets for the Games and drug cheats in the starting blocks. I like to believe we can’t quit on the Games because they’re a lot like life. A big mess that somehow brings out the best in the human spirit
Earlier this week, during 12 uncomfortable hours I was entangled in red tape at the Narita Airport, sitting on a chair in a corner while Japan decided if it was a wise idea to let an ink-stained wretch like me in the country as COVID numbers took a nasty uptick, what bolstered my smile was a never-ending rainbow coalition of athletes, from a barrel-chested Canadian weightlifter to a reed-thin Nigerian runner, walk slowly through the airport concourse, dealing with the same bureaucratic frustrations as me.
Their motivation to put up with the hassle was for the purest of reasons: We all want to go out and play.
These Games can serve as a reward for enduring the anguish and uncertainties of the previous, pandemic-pocked 18 months. Adeline Gray, a 30-year-old world champion wrestler and Denver native, deferred her dream of starting a family for a year to chase a gold medal in Tokyo.
“It’s the rockiest road I’ve ever had to stand on,” Gray told me. But now that she’s ready to step on the mat, every rocky inch of the journey has been worth it.
The connection between athlete on the field and fan in the stands is a real and beautiful thing. So it’s a bummer that a state of medical emergency declared in Tokyo, a big diamond of city that shimmers on an inlet of the Pacific Ocean, will silence the joy of cheering crowds, in stadiums and in the street.
There’s no doubt this pandemic has put a big economic and emotional dent in the Games. COVID-19, however, can’t quash the Olympic spirit.
The men and women of the U.S. wrestling team have spent the days prior to the biggest competition of their lives training in Nakatsugawa, a small mountain community some 185 miles from Tokyo.
Earlier this week, as American wrestlers left the hotel and rolled through town, they were awestruck by random acts of kindness by their new, temporary neighbors. Although Japan has good reason to be wary about inviting more than 20,000 athletes, staffers and journalists from every corner of the world into the country as a pandemic rages on, Gray and her teammates got wrapped in warm virtual hugs by the good folks of Nakatsugawa.
“We were driving our bus to practice and the streets were lined with people,” said wrestler Kyle Dake, a two-time world champion. “They let schools out of class to let kids come down the road and wave American flags, cheering us on … To feel that support from our host country, I didn’t know what to think. But it was pretty amazing.”
A Japanese child drew a simple welcome sign that made a U.S. wrestler feel like a hometown hero half the world away away from America. There must have been some real magic in that kid’s marker if it could illustrate the true meaning of the Olympic spirit so simply and beautifully, don’t you think?
Despite all the warts associated with this over-the-top athletic palooza, we can’t stop loving the Games, because they find a way to bring out the best in all of us.