The Tokyo Olympics were set to be one of the greatest Games ever held. As a fan of Japan and its culture, I was looking forward to these Games more than either of my two previous Olympiads. Yet the 2020 Games – set during the Covid-19 pandemic following one of the most politically tumultuous presidencies in American history – turned out nothing like I could have expected.
We were greeted by smiling volunteers, but just like myself and my fellow athletes they were told to put on a brave face while the International Olympic Committee ran things in the same dismal way it always has.
Of course, we had to get there first. The scariest part of preparation for me was the final tests that I – and every other Olympic athlete – had to take before leaving for Tokyo. They were anxiety-inducing nightmares because you had to watch them for 30 minutes before receiving a result, waiting for a blinking light to finally tell you if your Olympics were over before they began.
The Olympic village in Japan was created to be extremely efficient, but it turned out to be a very strange experience, exaggerating the lack of athletes and reminding us of the loneliness that came with these Games. During a normal Olympics, the village is filled with people lounging, celebrating, playing games, and enjoying the experience, with the dining hall busy and loud 24 hours a day.
In Japan, there was no such energy because there weren’t enough people to populate the village. It seemed empty. Every athlete had to leave the village 48 hours after their event finished, so there was never a large amount of athletes there to enjoy the experience. I was sitting in a courtyard around 10pm one night with my girlfriend between three massive buildings that were meant to be filled with athletes, and there was … nobody. Not a noise. Not a person on the phone outside, or sitting on their balcony. It was dead quiet. Eerie.
I didn’t feel isolated because I had my teammates and my girlfriend with me, but I did notice how little I was interacting with other athletes. Usually, I would meet new people in the dining hall, but the plastic partitions around every seat made it almost impossible to even hear the person sitting directly in front of you.
But even with those restrictions I was aware of how privileged I was – I was competing at the top of my sport alongside my girlfriend and friends. And I soon realized that our Japanese hosts had an impossible task: There was no way they could operate and keep all the athletes completely safe.
For example, I was told that I would be tested everyday in the village. But upon arrival, I wasn’t supplied with the correct testing tubes for my saliva sample. Each day for four days I asked about my testing and was told not to worry. For my first four days in the village, I wasn’t tested at all. I am in no way bashing Japan and the wonderful volunteers in Tokyo, because I am thankful to them for hosting the Games. But I was worried about contact with people. I was worried that if I sat in the wrong seat at the dining hall my Olympics would be over. I just didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t the IOC’s fault — after all, they couldn’t stop a pandemic — but by not doing anything to make us feel more safe, the IOC adhered to their usual gameplan: as long as everything looks fine to the outside world and no one is complaining publicly, then let’s just move along.
And that gameplan includes silencing athletes through its Rule 50, which forbade athletes from making “politically motivated” statements on the podium or in competition. Not that all of us listened.
As I stood on the podium to receive my bronze, I bore an “X” on my right hand in black marker. Some American athletes of color, including Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry, decided upon this symbol to show solidarity for each other and support the oppressed, and they encouraged anyone who was going to protest to use it.
I personally wore the symbol as a demonstration against Rule 50, in support of athletes of color, ending gun violence, and all the athletes who wish to use their voice on the platform they’ve earned. I also wanted to draw attention to the hypocrisy of the IOC, and all of the organizations who profit so immensely off athletes they do not bother listening to.
Afterwards, Raven Saunders and I met each other at our mandatory Today Show appearance. She had just won silver in the women’s shot put and raised her arms in the air in an “X” formation to support the oppressed. I stopped her and mentioned my support for her and her message. She said she was aware of my protest and was very kind. She is an excellent athlete, ambassador and a beautiful person who is sharing personal experiences about mental illness to support others. What’s not to love?
Aside from us, there were not a lot of visible protests on the podium at these Games, but that didn’t really surprise me. There seems to be a common misconception that if we allow protests, everyone will be protesting all the time. So few people actually get to stand on the podium at the Olympic in the first place – and for the famous athletes with the largest platforms, there is so much to lose. Then again, I had never previously had a single dollar offered to me before or after an Olympics through my federation or the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). This year, the USOPC offered me my first campaign and it was to talk about kneeling and how Team USA supports it. Ironic, right?
We are in a less volatile time in the United States than we were during the Donald Trump era, so that could have played a part in the reduced number of protests, but let me be very clear: nothing has changed. There were still mass shootings during the Olympics. Black athletes are still subjected to racist slurs. The IOC still tried to make its money, pandemic or not. And 99% of athletes still go home penniless and without any protection mentally or financially.
The goal has always been for the show to carry on the same way, and the IOC has been very successful in doing just that. We will look back at the IOC years from now the same way we look at the governing body of US college sport, the NCAA: a backwards organization that took advantage of athletes. As for the United States, we are far from done with the journey towards true equality, and I doubt that day will be in my lifetime. But I will continue to speak up and stand with those who are treated unfairly.
So, if all is not what it appears to be at the Olympics, as was definitely the case in Japan, the question remains: why do we have the Games? I would say because in this world of grey areas, tragedies, pandemics, politics, inequality, and unfair odds, there is one thing that unites us: we all dream. Every time an athlete takes his or her mark, or gets en guard, they are ignoring the doubt that we all know too well.
We choose to believe that in each of our flawed and imperfect lives there may be a champion; that we are deserving of our dreams. In this way, we are all athletes. We are all looking for a reason to keep going, to get up, and to believe that we are deserving. So, for two glorious weeks, we are privileged to watch thousands of people believe in the impossible. Some will achieve it, most will go home empty handed, but they dare to dream.
The Olympics are about belief in ourselves.