06 Aug

The Olympic Mirror-Reflection Of Our Times.

I love watching the Olympics. I am in awe of the athletes and their performances blow my mind. Likewise, the opening ceremony is usually a treat, an opportunity to observe a culture through the performing arts. But these are different times.

Who knew that the 2020 Olympics would be taking place in 2021? The delay is understandable of course. The pandemic and its wreckages have forced us to learn to deal with unpredictability, on many fronts, including the timing of what seems like an unassailable schedule.

The words pivoting and unprecedented have been in for quite the workout lately! As we pivot and create new precedents, we have opened the doors to questioning the unquestionable, which in turn is fueling a wave of courageous, long overdue conversations.

They can be uncomfortable and often leave us with an irksome feeling of not being sure what to do. That’s okay, we need to learn to be okay with that discomfort and hear its silent messages.

Hard choices…Tough decisions

In the weeks leading to the revised Olympics opening day date, I was expecting an announcement that the games were delayed again. Why? Because the Japanese people were vocal about the risks associated with proceeding considering the low vaccinations rate in their country and the soaring new case numbers. It seemed legitimate to me. The answer to those concerns can be summarized somewhat tongue-in-cheek with “no worries, the party will go on, but you’re not invited.” Okay then.

And the show is going on.

There is no doubt in my mind that choosing the best path forward under such circumstances is a tall order and a complicated one. So many stakeholders’ interests to account for. I don’t pretend to know how the decision was reached. My hope is that the athletes, their well-being, and their voices were the loudest, along with the voices of the host country, but what I have read so far is leaving me skeptical and is pointing toward the power of the Olympic machine.

I watched the opening ceremony. It was odd. The artistic performances were beautiful and in true Japanese tradition perfectly executed. But what is usually a colorful, energetic, and exciting parade of athletes, the kind that could blow the roof of a stadium, was more of a trickle.

The 2020 Olympics were proclaimed as boasting gender equity, and we saw many countries with both a male and female athlete as co-flag bearer. It seemed awkward for the athletes to figure out to have two people carry the flag, but a point was being made. However, not all countries followed suit, and in fact some have a male-only team. Okay then.

As an aside, while the ceremonies were going on, there were protests outside of the stadium, no footage was shared during the ceremony.

I thought that this unusual ceremony could be made relevant through the speeches. What an incredible stage to share a compelling message, one that would acknowledge the challenging circumstances we are facing, worldwide. This was a chance to rally participants and viewers alike and pave the way to a renewed Olympic movement. To say that I was disappointed by Thomas Bach’s speech is an understatement. While I have no line of sight to his performance as a leader of the IOC, when he spoke, I couldn’t help but think that he was the embodiment of what needs to change.

Onward and upward, time to give the floor to the amazing athletes!

While I am not going to win any geography trivia, I am familiar with most of the countries present at the Olympics, so when I started watching, I couldn’t figure out what country’s initials ROC stood for.

Turns out that the Russian athletes are not competing under the Russian flag because of a punishment handed down by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)—yes, I remember that. Originally, Russia had been suspended for four years of Olympic action, but in late 2020, that punishment was reduced to two years. That I don’t remember.

During that two-year period, athletes that were not involved in the Russian doping scandal are still able to compete in Olympic competition. That’s how there are 335 Russians competing in 2021. However, they must do it as neutrals, hence no flag and no national anthem. Their outfits look very Russian in their colors if you ask me… Welcome Russian Olympic Committee, the ROC.

So, let me get this straight, they get caught, they get punished, their 4-year ban becomes a 2-year ban and athletes who were not involved in the scandal can still compete—all 335 of them. It appears the WADA folks are not impressed with this. No kidding…

At the time of writing, the ROC ranks 4 in medal count, with 37 so far. Okay then.

Let’s revisit the gender equality bragging that is going on.

It is true that for the first time, there are almost as many female athletes as there are men athletes, with females accounting for 49% of participants.

As I write this post, all Canadian medals have been earned by female athletes, many in water sports, including the gold for the women’s eight rowing crew. If you need a picker-upper, check out the clip of the amazing performance and the team’s joy.

Oh, and let’s not forget that two of the medalists in men’s golf competed with female caddies.

But while I celebrate the forward momentum, we still have a long way to go. Earlier this summer, Norway’s beach handball federation was fined 150 Euros each player after its women’s team wore shorts instead of bikini bottoms in the bronze medal match of the European Handball Championships in Varna, Bulgaria. The International Handball Federation requires women to wear bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg.” The sides of the bikini bottoms must be no more than four inches. Men, on the other hand, can wear shorts as long as four inches above their knees as long as they are “not too baggy.” OK then.

On a positive note, the singer Pink took to social media to say that she was “very proud” of the team for protesting the rule that prevented them from wearing shorts like their male counterparts, and she offered to pay the fine!

And on July 25, the German women’s gymnastics team wore ankle-length unitards (instead of the usual bikini-cut leotards) during qualifiers for Olympic competition. Fingers crossed that the pushback signals a turning point for women athletes taking control of their image on the international stage.

And then there is Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw, explaining that she needs to protect her mental health. Simone is experiencing what is referred to as “having the ‘twisties’” a word for a mental block in which gymnasts lose their spatial awareness in the middle of complex skills. That’s dangerous.

But there is much more to Simone Biles. This podcast episode of The Daily by the New York Times provides a great outlook on her history and, as far as I am concerned, leads to even greater respect and admiration. Simone had a rocky start in life, the kind that breaks your heart, until age 6 when she was adopted by her grandparents. At the risk of stating the obvious, Simone is a woman, and she is Black. She is the last competing survivor amongst the victims of Larry Nassar, sentenced in 2018 to 40 to 125 years in prison, following over 20 years of sexual abuse of young gymnasts.

Simone has not spoken a lot about this so far. But she has expressed her anger, disappointment, and sadness about being let down. Over the years, she has met and exceeded all expectations of her, giving everything that she could. The systems that she has been functioning in, the USA Gymnastics and the Olympic Committee, failed to do the one thing they were supposed to do for her: protect her.

Something tells me this is not the end of this conversation. I can’t wait to see how Biles will continue to make her mark.

So yes, I view the 2020 Olympics as a mirror of what we are going through collectively at a broader scale.

We are juggling with a combination of things to protect fiercely, such as in the context of the Olympics having a stage that celebrates incredible talent, and on the other hand, outdated systems that need dismantling and careful rebuilding to return them to their initial mandate—protecting the athletes and ensuring fair representation.

This analogy applies to many of the institutions around us right now.

We function in human-made systems that sometimes evolve for good reasons, but the evolution can also be driven by individual agendas, the kind that can derail them. Another risk with systems is that they don’t evolve when they should.

Regardless, when systems have or reach a modus operandi that does not serve the greater good, they can wreak havoc. Many instances of this phenomenon have been exposed lately.

When that happens, we need to be willing to challenge that state of affairs. How? By being brave and bringing up controversial topics, being willing to hear what others have to say, having the courage to use our voices to say what we view as okay and not okay and why.

Using our voices will fuel powerful conversations worldwide. The messy middle is where the magic happens. Stay there, be patient, don’t give up, don’t rush a resolution.

The idea of deciding to deliberately alter a system, to commit to dismantling, rebuilding, or eradicating it can feel paralyzing. But, collectively, we can do this.

And you don’t need a big stage or a huge audience to be involved. Your voice matters, right where you are.

This is an invitation to start small and be reminded of the words of Margaret Mead,

“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Be the change.

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