Why the Beijing Olympics Are So Hard to Watch

Imagine a dystopian Olympics. Maybe it would have athletes skiing on fake snow down parched slopes. Robots mixing cocktails, making dumplings and disinfecting the air. Events staffed by workers not in sportswear but hazmat suits. Instead of a stadium you are eager to get a seat in, a bubble you cannot leave.

They’re being staged in a country whose persecution of the Uyghurs has been called a genocide by the Biden administration, and yet China had a smiling Uyghur athlete light the Olympic torch as Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin looked on, two autocrats seated together in the V.I.P. box.

Here we are: the world’s largest athletic festival, recast for 2022.

It’s no wonder the broadcaster NBCUniversal is reported to have slashed its ratings expectations for these Games compared with four years ago. The Winter Olympics have always been less popular than the Summer, and this year’s opening ceremony’s ratings were the lowest in history.

There is a lot of speculation as to why we’re not watching. But as a longtime sucker for the no-limits narratives concocted for us by the Olympics and its marketers, I’ll say I’m just not feeling it this year. The Games’ core appeal has always been inspiration, the pursuit of impossible dreams. Two years into a pandemic, when so many of our dreams have been shelved, these Games just aren’t delivering that kind of inspiration. Instead of showcasing the best of what humanity can do, this Olympics seem to reflect what we can’t.

With their spectacle of extreme athletics held against a backdrop of climate emergency, public health disaster, political brinkmanship and rampant corruption, the Games reek of societal decline. When anxiety and misery are all around us, and many of us have lost our faith in institutions’ ability or will to solve these problems, state- and corporate-sponsored inspiration doesn’t land the way it used to.

The athletes and their feats seem eclipsed by crises no icebound pirouette or gargantuan leap off a ski jump can rival. And these Games have already seen their share of athletic-related outrages, with the news that the Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, just 15 years old, had tested positive before the Games for a banned drug, a revelation that only fuels the Olympics’ image crisis.

Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

I’ve typically loved the Winter Games for the triumph. Nordic skiers who become national heroes after tying for first on a broken pole. Jamaican bobsledders and the Miracle on Ice, when the youthful U.S. hockey team came out of nowhere in 1980 to defeat the best teams in the world. Maybe the euphoria around those moments was a mirage too, distracting us from real problems. It was thrilling anyway. It also feels over.

The athletic moments that capture our collective attention these days are quite different. Many of them reflect a growing acceptance of limitations in our lives. We celebrated Simone Biles last summer in Tokyo for prioritizing her safety and bowing out, and shared the relief on Friday of the gold medal favorite Mikaela Shiffrin for finishing in ninth place after struggling on her first two forays on the ski slopes.

And there was applause for the 35-year-old snowboarding champion Shaun White, who was trying for a fourth and final gold but ended up expressing his joy at being usurped by talented younger riders: “They’ve been on my heels every step of the way, and to see them finally surpass me is, I think deep down, what I always wanted,” he told reporters through laughter and tears.

All this is also inspiration — but a new kind, befitting this strange moment. It’s not the familiar underdog success story, which flips every loss into a story of ultimate gain, or turns every setback into a narrative of empowerment and success. Athletes are now inspiring us by showing us their humanity, by no longer forcing themselves to endure the untenable. The stories we’ll remember from the past two Olympics will not be about shattering limits, but accepting them.

Of course, there are still old-fashioned victories in Beijing, and those are worth celebrating too. There’s Eileen Gu, a teenage fashion model from San Francisco who is winning golds and capturing the imagination of her adopted country, China, before she starts at Stanford this year. The figure skater Nathan Chen and snowboarder Chloe Kim followed their dreams to win gold for America. A Dutch speedskater became the first person to win an individual gold medal at five Olympics — and at 35, the oldest gold medalist in her sport ever.

I like watching the athletes too much to skip the Olympics. Ice dancing is gorgeous, ski jumpers are wild. And I will happily take a few minutes out of an evening over the next few weeks to watch the curlers furiously sweep a slab of stone down a narrow lane of ice.

But it’s still hard not to feel ambivalent about it all. Maybe that’s not fair to the athletes, who have worked their whole lives to compete in the Olympics. They didn’t choose this moment, this set of overlapping crises, or the host country — just as most of us haven’t chosen the problematic legacies we’ve inherited. We’re all just muddling through.

And so the Games go on, in largely vacant stadiums where the few locals who manage to attend are prohibited from cheering, to avoid exhaling contagious particles. It makes me think of the request of a Japanese amusement park to guests at the beginning of the pandemic, which would be a worthy slogan for Beijing 2022: “Scream inside your hearts.”

Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is an editor and producer in Opinion who writes on gender, ambition and power. She produced the Op-Doc “The Queen of Basketball,” which is nominated for an Academy Award.

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