The Summer Olympics are underway, but according to a great many people, including nearly 80 percent of polled Japanese residents, they shouldn’t even be happening at all. After being postponed from 2020 — the first time in Olympic history — citizens of Japan have urged the 2021 events to be rescheduled until cases are under control. At least two dozen athletes have been forced to drop out due to Covid-19 diagnoses, and those that remain virus-free are still subject to temperatures in the 90s with “air so thick it felt as if you had to chew it before you could breathe it.” Oh, and now there’s a possible tropical storm headed toward Tokyo.
There is still one part of the 2020 Olympics that is just as delightful as we all wish all of it could be: athletes on TikTok. These are the first Games during which TikTok has existed, so naturally, a bunch of the athletes are making the most of it. Take Team USA rugby player Ilona Maher, who’s built a 300,000-strong following showing the intricacies of the Olympic dining hall trash system, being horny for all the “tall foreign demigod lookin athletes,” and testing the durability of the infamous cardboard beds with “various activities.” Then there’s Kendall Chase, whose video on the OlympiGays of the USA women’s rowing team has gone very viral, and Erik Shoji, the American volleyball player who’s been documenting his Olympic-level meals.
As social media has done for celebrities before them, TikTok is helping audiences put faces to the names and teams on their TV screens for the next few weeks. In other words, it’s helping to humanize the athletes. Two of the top comments on one of Maher’s videos were, “I forget that they’re normal people sometimes and I love it,” and, “The olympics is so much more fun now that tiktok is a thing.”
That internet fame, in turn, is almost certainly helping athletes who aren’t one of the five or so that become household names during Olympics season — Simone Biles or Katie Ledecky, for instance — get recognition for themselves and their sport. Of her large following, Maher told NBC that “It’s very hard as female athletes. We don’t get a lot of resources or even a lot of attention.”
In truth, it’s difficult to grapple with the politics of watching the Olympics once you’re exposed to precisely how immoral it all might be. The Olympics has long been an economic, environmental, and humanitarian disaster for the citizens of its home city, where construction tends to end up displacing large groups of poor residents and leaving taxpayers to foot the bill, which is often billions of dollars over budget. The IOC, a potentially corrupt organization, still bans acts of dissent among athletes and tends to favor powerful nations that have histories of colonialism, genocide, and totalitarianism. Meanwhile, the athletes are thrown into a narrative that broadcasters can manipulate into what essentially amounts to reality television.
But man, is it good TV. The Olympics are really, really easy to hate until you watch athletes from your country take the field or the court or the pool, or one of those NBC tearjerker packages about how someone’s mom used to wake up at 4 am and drive her to daily practice for 20 years. It’s an objectively wonderful spectacle because the focus is on the athletes themselves, who by and large seem like wonderful people. It’s the system that isn’t so nice to look at, but hey, what are we going to do, not root for the Tongan team just because their flag bearer is extremely oily and muscular? Ultimately, there’s an awful lot of — and I apologize for this — mental gymnastics required.
Look, here’s USA diver Tyler Downs sharing the universal experience of having a crush on Simone Biles! Would you like to see the 7-foot-tall Argentinian basketball player Fran Caffaro not being able to fit into the Olympic Village shower? Of course you do! If not, let Australian diver Sam Fricker take you on a cute little bike ride around the Olympic Village, or watch the New Zealand athletes compare bicep circumferences. Did you know Nigerian-American basketball player Erica Ogwumike is also just casually in medical school? Or that they’re all riding self-driving buses? Did you also know that there’s an entertainment center where athletes can all hang out and play table tennis and arcade games together? That’s adorable! Finally, here’s the US men’s volleyball team doing a bunch of shimmies (I highly recommend it). Fuck it, go Team USA.
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