The medals have been earned and distributed and the flame has been extinguished, bringing an end to the 2020 Summer Olympics – an Olympics, it goes without saying at this point, like no other.
Like every Olympics since I began watching the Games in the summer of 1972, however, Tokyo 2020 generated images, impressions, and a few questions that will remain with me long after the Closing Ceremony. A question that may never be answered is why was Lester Holt even in Tokyo in the first place, in quarantine, remotely interviewing athletes’ families who were stuck in the United States.
Of course, the athletes and their accomplishments were the real stories. There was the feelgood moment of supreme common sense, not actually good sportsmanship as it is being portrayed, when two athletes decided, “Sure, we’ll both take a Gold Medal!” There was the daughter of the socially conscious, legendary rock star, famous for writing about the “lives of those left behind by the American Dream” and questioning the status quo, taking home a silver medal for Team USA. And Jessica Springsteen won a medal, too.
But for me, sitting here in Maine at 62 years old, nearly 50 years removed from Olga Korbut, Mark Spitz, and the tragedy in Munich, these were my top five stories from Tokyo and the XXXII Olympiad.
My Olympics viewing experience started with the final minutes of Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway winning the Triathlon by outracing two athletes who, based on the TV commentary, were clearly the more accomplished runners.
Having endured a winter and spring of daily comments about my own walking form (cracks about flailing arms and references to Phoebe running), it was a joy to listen to the analysts describe Blummenfelt’s unorthodox and inefficient form with its deleterious side-to-side motion, and then watch him outkick the others over the last kilometer and awkwardly dance his way to a gold medal.
And all of that was before I read the article describing his “physique out of the norm,” pointing out that his posture is not perfect in terms of biomechanics and “unlike his peers and rivals, he is very robust.” My hero!
Simone Biles and Mykayla Skinner
Nothing compares to a good story. I loved to listen to Garrison Keillor and the late Stuart McLean on the radio. I love story songs from American Pie to All Too Well and everything in between by Dylan. And the journey of Simone Biles and Mykayla Skinner had all of the ingredients of a good story. The only thing missing was the storybook ending.
My daughter and I were there in Hartford when Simone and Mykayla competed against each other at the 2013 P&G US National Gymnastics Championships (Simone’s first, Mykayla’s second). On the Vault that weekend, Simone and Mykayla finished second and third, respectively, behind another McKayla. Their story and their gymnastics journeys were so closely tied together yet so very far apart over the next eight years. Until…
The Simone Biles Story (no, not that story)
Books, movies, documentaries, and dissertations will be written to tell the story of Simone Biles; they will dissect, interpret, and explain what happened over the last two weeks in Tokyo, the preceding two months leading up to and following the Olympic Trials, the two years of extended training for 2020/2021, and all that happened in the years before that. I will leave that story to others.
The story, actually stories, that caught my interest were all of the stories that were crafted by people who seamlessly, effortlessly, and shamelessly used every piece of Simone Biles news to advance the story they wanted to tell. They made the most of any little tidbit they could find from her story and fit it to their narrative.
We have watched this same phenomenon play out over the past year in our own field of education and assessment with regard to everything associated with COVID-19 and anti-racism. It felt different, and much more disturbing, to witness the same thing being done under these circumstances.
If you grow up in Boston and spend most of your adult life living in Maine, you know marathons. You are playing six degrees of Bill Rodgers or Joan Benoit Samuelson on a regular basis. I know people who have run a marathon, marathon runners, and people who fall somewhere between the two – all zealots who are more than willing to punish their bodies and withstand the pain that comes with running a marathon. (shameless plug for a The Race is Long, a memoir by one of my marathon running high school classmates)
So, I can certainly appreciate what Molly Seidel accomplished in just her third marathon.
But that is not why she is included on this short list of mine. No, she is included here because even after a highly successful career as a runner at much shorter distances, she was still searching for new challenges, the thing to do next with her talent and skill – and she found it. Isn’t that what we all hope for?
And then there is this quote:
“I try not to have too many expectations. It is just to go out, stick your nose where it doesn’t belong and try and make some people angry. My goal today was just to go in and for people to think, ‘Who the hell is this girl?’ “
She did her part and now we all know who Molly Seidel is.
My final thoughts from the 2020 Olympics are related to women’s sports in the United States, team sports, in particular. (I have written about the special place in my heart women’s sports.) Prior to the start of the Games, I watched the peacock original documentary series, The ’96 Effect, recounting the stories of the 1996 US Women’s Olympic Gymnastics, Soccer, Softball, and Basketball teams and describing the enormous and lasting impact their success had on women’s sports in the United States.
The 1996 Games were played roughly 25 years after the passage of Title IX, and the athletes on those teams were described as the first Title IX generation. The 2020 Games are another 25 years down the road. Where do things stand? Although the gymnastics, soccer, and softball teams were not able to repeat their 1996 gold medal performances, they were still successful, and then there is ongoing stellar performance by the women of USA basketball, volleyball, water polo, swimming, track and field, and I would be remiss if I did not mention ice hockey. You can make the case that the United States’ efforts to develop elite international teams has been vastly more successful in women’s sports than in men’s sports. So, everything’s good. Well, not quite.
There are equality and equity challenges at all levels and now evolving social perspectives have raised questions about who should be eligible to participate in girls and women’s sports. But women’s sports, of course, is a product of and a producer of evolving social perspectives. The next twenty-five years should be extraordinary.