by Weldon Johnson, LetsRun.com
September 8, 2016
Two weeks after returning from the Rio Olympics I’m still trying to process them and recover. There was a one-week period in the middle of the Games where I’m certain I’ve never slept less in my life. Nor did I venture outside of a 1.25-mile radius between the stadium and the apartment we rented (the LRC team in Rio consisted of myself and Jonathan Gault). The track stadium was in the middle of a nondescript middle-class area of Rio not near any of the other Olympic activity. The best thing LetsRun.com did all summer was rent an Airbnb apartment within walking distance of the stadium. That made what was a one- to two-hour commute for other journalists (four times a day, if you went to the morning and afternoon sessions) fifteen minutes for us. Which in theory meant more sleep, but in reality it just meant we’d actually stay for the post-race evening press conferences that sometimes ended at 2 a.m., then go home and write for a few hours and repeat the process at 9 a.m. the next day.
There’s no question about it, on a personal level, London was much more enjoyable (and even Atlanta in 1996, which I went to as a spectator). The best part of the Olympics is the slew of people from all over the globe coming together, celebrating sport, and the common humanity in the world. In London, I felt a part of this sea of humanity, as I would take a bullet train to the Olympic Stadium with thousands of spectators who were going to the track, or swimming, or a host of other events that were nearby. I totally missed that experience in Rio as I could get into the stadium seeing just dozens of spectators.
Don’t think for a second I’m complaining. I was in Rio first and foremost as a journalist with a job to do and I got to witness once again the greatest track and field action in the world. I never stopped appreciating that. Sure the attendance was beyond disappointing, but that did not diminish the action on the track or the glory that comes from being an Olympic champion. Almost to remind us that what happens on the track is totally separate from the logistical problems or corruption surrounding it, Almaz Ayana set a world record in the 10,000m at the very first morning session of the Games. Talk about fate: it was the only session for the entire Games that the weather was conducive for a world record in a distance race.
In Rio, I struggled with how to make sense of the Games. Once on the ground, I certainly felt safe getting around (thank you Uber). I did get bitten by the one mosquito I saw (he snuck in when the air conditioner in our apartment was getting repaired), but had little fear of Zika. At the same time, anyone thinking of having kids anytime soon was smart to stay home.
Was it right to be at the Olympics and say London was much more enjoyable? Could I bitch about smelling raw sewage flowing down the river on my walk to the stadium? What about my disgust when asking someone in the stairwell at the Olympic Stadium what was on the sixth floor and to hear her glee when she responded something along the lines of “free stuff”, as if the Olympics is first and foremost just some sort of bacchanal for those fortunate to be a part of the IOC family.
The moment of the Games for me was no doubt Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa answering Jon’s question on why he threw up the “X” at the end of the Olympic marathon, and explaining in a slow measured tone that he was doing it to protest the treatment of the Oromo people in Ethiopia. Lilesa said because of his gesture, “If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they kill me. If not kill me, they put [me] in prison. If not put me in prison, they block me at airport. After that I don’t move anywhere.”
Lilesa, like Tommie Smith, was courageous, non-violent, and protesting for a greater cause. Who could be against that? Apparently, NBC, as they essentially ignored it because the Olympics are not supposed to be about political protest. 20 years from now, they’ll say it was one of the greatest moments of the Games.
The day after the Games ended, I was still trying to make sense of the dichotomy of the Rio Games when I was exiting the gondola at the bottom of Sugarloaf Mountain before going to get my bags and fly back to the States. A white Canadian woman likely in her 50s had been having a conversation with a black American woman from New York who was college-aged or maybe in high school. I wasn’t following the conversation closely, just appreciating this mini-Olympic moment of people with different backgrounds coming together and having a conversation. All I really picked up was the Canadian woman was more of an idealist. At one point she was complaining about American TV shows, but I seriously think they had already moved on to discuss ISIS. As the gondola doors opened, the American raised her voice and was becoming adamant the Canadian was being unrealistic. I just heard the American say the words forcefully, “People are people.”
A prophetic light went off in my head. I turned to the American, told her I didn’t know what they were even talking about, but said I agreed with her. People are people, and they are capable of tremendously great things and tremendously bad things. The Olympics are a constant reminder of that. The Olympics – since they are run by people – will never live up to their own ideal, but that doesn’t mean we should strive for it.
The Olympics are about some IOC members living large, with free meals, transportation, and $450-$900 per diems while many athletes struggle to make ends meet. They are about hundreds of millions being spent on stadiums while nearby sewage flows into the ocean in one of the most scenic spots of the world. The Olympics are also about some athletes doping.
The Olympics are also about athletes from all over the world dedicating a big portion of their lives to nothing but being better at their sport, pushing their bodies to their natural limit, performing at a ridiculously high level, and people from all over the world coming together every four years to witness that. The Olympics are about us being reminded of the common humanity in the world and celebrating it1.
My personal measure of the Olympics or even a World Championships is do I want to leave the mixed zone underneath the stadium where the athletes are being interviewed and make a mad dash up just a few flights of stairs (London) or up many flights of stairs and a ridiculously long windy concourse (Rio) to catch the most important races live with my own eyes. The answer in Rio most definitely continued to be yes.
Google Photos is getting pretty spooky at knowing all sorts of things about my life. It reminds me of cool things I did years ago and now puts together photo collages of my trips without me doing anything. Here’s what it came up with for Rio. (It even knew Matt Centro’s gold was a big deal).
Notes: 1. The Olympics had a branding campaign in 2000 “Celebrate Humanity” voiced over by the late Robin Williams. Watch it here.
Weldon Johnson is a founder of LetsRun.com. Reach him at [email protected]