If we define “fun” in its dictionary sense – lighthearted pleasure – it’s been a while since any Olympics were fun on the ground.
London 2012 was fun. Despite the usual muttering before it got under way – too expensive, too many foreigners, Traffic-mageddon – the city couldn’t bring itself to hold a grudge. Once things really started rolling, the Londoners who couldn’t afford to flee embraced the chaos.
Sochi 2014 was the first truly contemporary Olympics in the sense that it took fun off the table. The lead-in was the rest of the world lobbing political, social and organizational critiques at Russia. Apparently, they don’t like that sort of thing.
So you want fun? Russia offered black-widow suicide bombers instead. Does that sound fun to you? No? Too bad.
Sochi was a party organized on principles of gulag chic. Everyone’s welcome, as long as they come in, shut up and take what they’re given. After dinner, there will be board games and – just a heads up – the host will be cheating. Hope that works for you. It doesn’t? Refer back to the part about shutting up.
In my room in Sochi, there were two single beds separated by a preposterously heavy nightstand. Every night, grunting and cursing, I would drag the nightstand into a corner and push the beds together.
Every morning, the person who cleaned the room pushed the two beds apart and put the nightstand back between them. We played this game for three solid weeks. That was the Russian Olympic experience in a nutshell.
Sochi was a tipping point for the Olympic movement. It showed that you could put on a Games no one liked and there would be no consequences.
The Olympics had fallen so far in general estimation that the International Olympic Committee couldn’t afford to complain, even when they had good reason to do so.
So the word was out: You don’t have to kill yourself putting this thing on. Just make sure there’s lighter fluid in the cauldron and that no one drops a bomb on the opening ceremony. Anything beyond that is marketing gravy.
You could see this adjustment happening in real time in Brazil in 2016. A couple of years out, and for all the typical reasons, Rio was not happy to see the Olympics coming. But unlike London, that resistance didn’t melt away once the world showed up. Rio maintained a frosty distance throughout.
Pyeongchang 2018 – functional, not fun. A decent excuse for a cross-border summit. Otherwise, a forgettable get-together.
All great parties have a loose, unscripted quality. It’s the wonderful things you didn’t see coming that make them memorable.
By Pyeongchang, the Olympics were very literally being run like a military operation. Get in, get out and pray your constituents don’t hold it against you. Forgettability was now a goal.
Tokyo 2020 – a work party the bosses didn’t want to host and the workers didn’t want to attend (and which didn’t actually happen until 2021), but everyone was too polite to flake on it.
The best thing you can say about it was that they got through it. Again, success through anonymity.
Which brings us to what promises to be the ultimate expression of the 21st-century Olympics.
You know that scene near the start of every alien invasion/monster movie where the heroes are thrust into action? There’s a bunch of khaki tents, aircraft noise and shouty guys in hazmat suits. This is the universal visual cue that things have broken down. We are in tents now, people. We have left the comfort of everyday life and are encountering something new and, very possibly, terrible.
That is apparently what landing in Beijing right now looks and feels just like. You wanted Chariots of Fire. They’re giving you Arrival.
If the past few Olympics were not fun by circumstance, Beijing will be unfun by design. If fun were a consideration, they’d have pushed it to next year. If entertaining were a goal, they’d have opened the city to visitors. But the less fun it gets, the greater the opportunity for some stakeholders.
The IOC continues to shill their vision of the Olympics as commodified Shangri-La: “The whole world coming together in harmony, hoping to buy each other a Coke.™ (Only Visa™ accepted.)”
China doesn’t need to make Coca-Cola happy. So Beijing 2022 will strip away that corporate pretense. This will be the first totally honest Olympics – an expensive exercise in expressing national power and capability.
One couldn’t help but marvel at all the well-meaning people who seemed honestly convinced that if they stated their case loudly enough or latched onto the right cause, this Olympics would be postponed, or boycotted, or cancelled.
Their failure to move either the IOC or China proved the latter’s power. Continuing on in the face of the pandemic proves their capability.
Which of China’s main antagonists would host an Olympics right now? None of them. It’d be political bedlam if they tried. That wasn’t the point in acquiring this event. It’s just a lovely autocratic bonus.
All China has to do now is get everyone in, seal them up and power through the next three weeks and a bit. Of course, there will be snags and embarrassments for the hosts. Someone will make it political. It’s too tempting an opportunity to grandstand.
But assuming no calamity to come, China’s point has already been proved. They did whatever they wanted, and people who didn’t agree with them put their quiet ambition before their loudly proclaimed morals. They warned you it was their way or the highway, and people still begged to get in.
Between the daily swabs, the “purified” internet, the threat of detention, the constant warnings, and not even beginning to consider the political realities that exist outside the bubble, they very explicitly told you they didn’t care if you had any fun.
They didn’t have to. Because they knew the world would tell itself whatever little lies it needs to hear. We just can’t bear to miss any party, even one we’re almost sure will be a disappointment.
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