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.
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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.”