The overlooked power of the Olympic Games is their irresistible length. They are but 16 days long, and given the structure of anticipatory modern media, are previewed daily for four years – this time, for five – and then gone in a whisper. It is often said, usually by sports journalists, that no event on earth is more over than when the Olympic Games are over, and we emerge from the bubbles (a term now possessed of multiple meanings) in which we lived for the two weeks. Monday morning arrives and it is a new world, the Olympics like an airport swiftly shrinking from view as we climb into the sky and rush forward to another place, just a stamp on our passport or a logo on the souvenirs in our overstuffed checked bag.
But. During those 16 days, the Olympics are not swift at all. They are an endless succession of mornings, afternoons and nights, not just a little more than a fortnight, but a life all its own. I am typing stateside for these Games, but for the last 14 I was on the ground in various places – a mountaintop dormitory in Lillehammer; a lovely hotel in London, a spartan, pillowless ski condo in PyeongChang. Just places to sleep. But I developed a routine to corral the length of the endeavor: I would call the day of the Opening Ceremony "Day One," and count upward with each passing day. Day Two. Day Three. Day Four. But on the morning of Day Nine, I would executive a pivot and beginning counting backward: Seven To Go. Six To Go. Five To Go….
Does this mean I was sick of the Games? Not. At. All. I was loving the Games, through a fog of sleeplessness and uncertain meals. All of it.
It was a device that helped me understand the Olympic calendar, and in its way, helped me understand that the Olympics were not one event, but dozens; not a moment, but 16 days of moments, each connected to the ones that came before it, but each with oxygen of its own to breathe.
It was a way to understand that the Olympics are joy, but also pain. Towering success, but also gutting failure. A bronze medal can represent the greatest moment of a life, or the lowest athletic low of a career. Purity, but also corruption. They are as complex and imperfect as life itself, but also every bit as full of the elation that balances disappointment.
Where am I going with this? To the story of an 18-year-old U.S. gymnast named Sunisa Lee, who Thursday night in Tokyo (Thursday morning, EDT; and Thursday night in primetime on NBC) won the women’s gymnastics all-around title, the fifth consecutive American to win the title that is emblematic of the best gymnast in the world. She is the apotheosis of the American dream -- a Hmong American whose parents emigrated to the United State with precious little and raised a daughter who wore a gold medal around her neck on the highest step of an Olympic victory rostrum while The Star Spangled Banner was played. What a thing.
But the framing and the timing of Lee’s moment are equally important at these particular Olympics. Two days before Lee’s victory, her teammate, Simone Biles, had suddenly withdrawn from the team competition after one halting – and, according to many gymnastics experts, very dangerous – attempt on the vault apparatus. On Wednesday Biles withdrew from the all-around. Biles won the all-around in Rio five years ago (the fourth consecutive American victory in that defining competition), and came to Tokyo as the acknowledged best women’s gymnast in history, positioned for a coronation. With that status came a crushing load of expectation attached to the title and its place in a noisy media culture that has become obsessed with – and demanding of – G.O.A.T.s. Biles said that she withdrew from the all-around to focus on her mental health, a stance that, on the heels of similar statements from tennis player Naomi Osaka – has thrust athletes’ emotional welfare further into the public consciousness, a very good thing. (It has also engendered a predictable and odious backlash from ugly corners of social media, a terrible commentary on society).
Biles’s withdrawal brought not only awareness and empathy, but also saddened the Olympics Games. That’s not nearly as important as Biles’s health, or America reckoning with its relationship with sports heroes, and those things should not be forgotten or left behind. But it’s the truth. Biles was the biggest name at the Games, and her work was life-affirming and joyful. She would makes us happy. Instead she made us sad, not for ourselves, but for her. The Games – already sideways from Covid and the lack of fans – seemed damaged, and lessened, and harder to watch. Another brick in the wall. Yet they would continue.
And a day later, Sunisa Lee lifted us, and the Games with her. (And perhaps lifted Biles, too.)
This is what the Olympics do best of all: They make new realities that help us reframe or recover old realities. Neither life nor the Olympics is just one thing. These Games are not only Biles’s very public and very courageous acknowledgement of her battle with mental health, in front of an audience that had been demanding she entertain us flawlessly, but they are also Sunisa Lee stepping into that vacated spotlight and excelling. Biles is the best gymnast in history (not just women’s, but just plain best), but Lee has been close behind, working. This was a difficult moment and she made it her moment. And in that moment the tenor of the Olympics changed.
(Again again again X1000: Biles should not be forgotten in all of this and her message should not be lost. She also still faces a decision on competing Sunday in the individual apparatus medal events).
What happened Thursday has happened before, dispiriting loss transformed into elevating victory. It has happened even here. On Sunday in Tokyo, Katie Ledecky was beaten to the wall in the 400-meter freestyle by the brilliant Ariarne Tiutmus of Austraila, and two nights later finished fifth in the 200 meters, with Titmus again taking gold. A narrative was developing that these Games were disappointing for Ledecky, but time – and her greatness – halted that in its tracks. Ledecky resoundingly won the first Olympic 1,500 meters just an hour after the 200 and then on Wednesday unleased a blistering anchor leg in the 4X200-meter relay, helping lift the U.S. win a silver medal, narrowly behind China. From Day 3 to Day 6, so much changed.
So it was on Thursday for Lee, in an empty arena. A deep breath, a smile, maybe a tear. A break. A reminder of the good that the Olympics can bestow, with the passage of time.
Something else about Lee. Let’s just let her moment be a moment. Not a mandate that she keep making us happy until we grow tired of her. Just let it be now.