Among the small, manageable irritations of an Olympics during a pandemic, the most onerous is the mask.
As an Ontarian, you’ve worn one for more than a year now. But you likely haven’t worn a mask like this – for 10, 12, 14 hours in a row. Even outdoors with no one else around and the real-feel temperature cresting 40 C, our hosts expect the mask stays on.
The upside? For the first time since Grade 9, I have acne. Clearly, middle age was just a stage. Now I am going backward in time, like Dr. Who.
The downside? Near the end of the day, I feel like John Hurt in Alien. All I can think about is getting this thing off my face.
But not our country, so not our rules. Aside from a few unconscientious objectors in the press box and the occasional screaming coach caught on TV, everyone has been pretty good about that.
Then there’s Michael Andrew.
Andrew is a U.S. swimming star who’s got it all covered here except the “star” part of the equation. He began this Games as the poster boy for vaccine hesitancy.
Based on Team USA’s own figures, about 100 American competitors in Tokyo (roughly one in six) are unvaccinated. Only Andrew seemed anxious to talk about it.
“Going to the Games not only unvaccinated, but as an American, I’m representing my country in multiple ways and the freedoms we have to make a decision like that,” Andrew said in one of many, many interviews.
Yes, he’s a real Franklin D. Roosevelt. American and unvaccinated. However, not a survivor of polio, presumably because a few someones in the Andrew family got vaccinated. Oh, the humanity.
Andrew has what passes for a tolerable amount of intellectualism in American popular culture – speaks in full sentences, nice smile, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. He’d make a great guest on a very special COVID edition of The Dr. Oz Show.
People overlooked Andrew’s political posturing because a) he didn’t make it obviously political and b) he wasn’t breaking any rules.
Japan made no demands about Olympic visitors being vaccinated, probably for fear that the Japanese electorate might notice that everyone in the developed world is vaxxed but them.
Having been given some rope, Andrew started tugging at it on Friday.
After they’re done, the swimmers zig-zag through a media maze stretched over two rooms, stopping for reporters who want to talk. Some come through masked and stay that way. A few start off masked and remove them when they are speaking. Some don’t wear a mask and just blow through.
On Friday, Andrew showed up without a mask anywhere in sight, then made himself comfortable while he held court. That is not usual.
Andrew had just placed fifth in the 200-metre individual medley. Some thought he might break the world record here. Earlier this week, he blew a medal chance at the 200-m breaststroke, his signature swim. So much like the Land of Unimpeded Freedoms he hails from, things are not trending upward in AndrewWorld.
Maybe this explains his what-are-you-gonna-do-tell-my-mom? attitude toward the rules when they were pointed out to him.
“For me, it’s pretty hard to breathe in after kind of sacrificing my body in the water,” he told reporters. “So I feel like my health is a little more tied to being able to breathe than protecting what’s coming out of my mouth.”
The key words here are “feel like.” If “feel like” is an acceptable basis for non-compliance with the rules, then we’re going to have to take murder off the books. Because I feel like doing that every once in a while.
Japan and Tokyo both hit historic highs for daily COVID-19 infections on Friday, almost precisely smack in the middle of the Games’ 16-day run. It’s not a great look. Andrew’s contribution to the Olympics’ Japanese community outreach is whining about his sacrifices.
Andrew isn’t an ugly American. That trope is a relic of a better time for the red, white and blue. Things aren’t going well enough in the U.S. for its citizens to overconfidently float around the globe any more.
The new cliché is the resentful American. As U.S. influence wanes, the resentful American is increasingly ill at ease in the wider world. He doesn’t like leaving home.
When forced to do so, he no longer thinks of it as an opportunity to spread the gospel of democracy and the Constitution. Instead, he brings America along with him.
Regardless of where he happens to be, it’s still the sort of place you can straight-facedly equate non-vaccination with actual essential freedoms, and sincerely believe people will nod along as if you are a regular Thomas Aquinas.
No country has a monopoly on common sense. But God bless them, certain Americans do have a tendency to corner the market on its opposite.
This isn’t about Andrew’s vaccine politics (though he confuses principle with self-interest, a particularly American misreading of moral philosophy common at both ends of their right-left spectrum).
This is about bad manners. It’s about coming to someone else’s country and lecturing them about how you feel like doing things.
One of the many sadnesses about the past two years is how our meta-family has grown distant from one another. The era of unhindered travel – of waking up on a Friday and, savings account permitting, deciding to fly to Stockholm or Hong Kong or Sydney on a Sunday – may be over. We may be entering a new period of inward-looking parochialism.
This Olympics was a reminder that it is still possible to go to new places, see new people and experience new things. It’s not as easy, fun or “free” as it once was. But if a few, small courtesies are maintained, it will be possible. Unless you are a jerk about it.
The Olympics doesn’t need to have a broader conversation about the pandemic as it applies to individual freedoms. This Olympics is turning into nothing but broader conversations about all sorts of things.
What it needs is fewer jerks.
Sign up for The Globe’s Olympic newsletter and follow all of the news, features and opinion in the leadup to the Summer Games in Tokyo.