Off-script Olympics: Losses, wins, and lots of improv

Each Olympics is held every two years. The organizers spend billions to ensure that everything runs smoothly. This allows for only one realm, and one realm alone, to be truly unpredictable: the performances of the athletes and the results of the events.

Off-script Olympics: Losses, wins, and lots of improv

Of course, it never works that way. The International Olympic Committee hopes that the event will unfold in the same way it does, but drugging, diplomatic incidents, bad behaviour, or political upheaval are all factors that make it difficult to see. But even viewed through that prism, this Pandemic Olympics has been the most off-script Games in history.

"This isn't a story that fits our society's desire to have complete historical context by the time we refresh our phones," NBC's Mike Tirico said a week into Japan's fourth Olympic Games.

A devastating pandemic delayed it for a year. They still refer to an Olympics in 2020 as the "2020 Tokyo Games". Another nod to powerful scripts that resist being overturned. The organizing committee was plagued by a series of resignations, ranging from financial corruption to bullying and sexual harassment.

Three of the world's best-known athletes -- Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic -- didn't end up doing anywhere near what they were expected to do in Tokyo, and the ensuing (and productive) conversation about emotional health, mental pressure and learning how to take care of one's self suffused the rest of the Games.

There was lots of improv at the Olympics, which is what they like to call the largest stage on the planet.

It was jarring, and understandably so, even beyond the spectatorless stands. For generations, the Olympic narrative has been dominated by a clear and concise storyline of winners and losers. However, these stories are only occasionally interrupted by controversies and eruptions. This time, however, the storylines were both more subtle than ever and more disruptive.

This may say less about the Olympics that it does about our times -- a complex, complicated, and intricate era filled with people who want easy solutions, as well as those who resist them.

The United States is a major Olympic participant that has tended to binary thinking throughout its history. Sometimes to Americans' detriment, it is often black or white, winners or losers, and yes or no. Many Americans have a strong aversion towards discussing and seeing shades of grey.

This sensibility is the basis of most American big-media stories. It's especially evident when it comes to sharply drawn coverage on an Olympic Games. Sometimes, this can seem like a bustling factory that produces heroes.

That expectation for hero-making is revealed in this endearing remark from U.S. athlete Isaiah Jewett, who picked up Botswana's Nijel Amos after they both fell in the semifinals of the men's 800-meter. Jewett stated, "All the superhero anime I watch, regardless of how crazy you are, must be heroes at the end."

He was a hero for all that he did. He also said that the American and Olympic commitment to sharp, epic endings is what makes them memorable. It can be confusing when an event like the Olympics or any other era comes at us who have been raised on binary storytelling.

Take a look at NBC. There are certain producers asking this question. How can you use a 50-year-old network-television architecture for telling sports stories, which was built for winners and losers, and make it work for a subtler set of stories like mental health or coronavirus fear, that don't always have distinct outcomes?

Viewership doesn't always equal nuance. In general, the prevailing sentiment runs more toward what 13-year-old Japanese skateboarder Momiji Nishiya said after getting her gold: "I want to be the famous one who everyone in the world knows."

It's fair to also look at the things that were written. Managerial success can be measured not just by what happens, but also by what doesn’t. It's important to note where the script has survived in this chaotic valley of Olympic unpredictability.

The Olympic bubble has not seen a major outbreak of COVID, which was the organizers' greatest fear. In fact, only 400 cases of Olympic-related COVID have been reported out of the tens of thousands tested since July 1. This despite the fact that the country surrounding the Games declared an increasing number of states of emergency to counter alarming increases in virus numbers.

The one political eruption -- the defection-like flight of Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to Vienna, then Poland, when she felt she was under threat -- was less disarray and more sharp thinking on behalf of Japanese authorities, who interceded when officials from the country's Olympic committee tried to hustle her on a plane home.

The IOC encouraged further discussion about mental health after Biles' long Olympic journey. This was part of what allowed athletes to speak out and make this complex and personal topic an integral part of the Tokyo 2020 script.

Maybe "Tokyo 2020" was the perfect moniker for Tokyo in 2021. These were Games that, even though they didn't follow 2020's script, had fear, disease, and suspicion everywhere, and faced many unexpected challenges.

There was a lot of good stuff in between, which shined through, much like the 2020 storyline. If you will, it's a modern Hollywood ending.

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