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The Tokyo Olympics

            I’m sort of dreading the Tokyo Olympics, because watching the events on TV tends to bring up all of the old I’m-not-good-enough crap from my childhood. It’s two weeks of comparisons and competitions and unreachable goals, and storylines about people who have “overcome everything” in order to succeed, without much acknowledgement of their support systems, good fortune, and natural genetic gifts, or the deep prices they’ve had to pay to pursue what is, for most, an unmeetable goal. Everyone who doesn’t succeed is left to feel like they didn’t try hard enough, or worse, that they were just unlucky, despite unimaginable effort.

“That sounds exhausting.”

            But this year there’s more to my dread. There’s Covid, for one, which is still raging out of control in Japan. Tokyo and other major Japanese cities are still under a state of emergency, and they are only now starting to vaccinate people under 65. More than 80% of the population wants the games cancelled or postponed, and Japanese scientists have warned that allowing spectators in the stands at the Olympics will help the virus spread domestically and internationally. Tourists from other countries have already been banned from entering Japan for the Olympics, and yet, Japan’s government and the International Olympic committee are going forward anyway, because the costs of cancelling would be prohibitive.

            And then there’s something else. Gymnastics is one of the marquee sports of the Summer Olympics – like figure skating is at the Winter Olympics – and going into this games we have been awash in stories about the sexual abuse of hundreds of female athletes, both by a doctor working for USA Gymnastics, and by coaches across the country. Complaints against all of them were ignored by USA Gymnastics, for years, leaving a generation of young girls unprotected.

There was something inevitable about all of this, given that, for the most part, women’s gymnastics is a misnomer. The athletes are usually very young girls, left under the power of middle-aged men. We have always known about the abuses in gymnastics: the horror stories about anorexia, and bullying from coaches, and athletes forced to compete while injured, but as long as the powers that be were willing to look past those overtly abusive practices, they allowed the covert abuses to proceed unchecked as well.

            The culture of gymnastics is changing, somewhat, with college gymnastics gathering a little more attention, and therefore showing the world that female athletes actually become women at some point, and can still excel at their sport. And USA Gymnastics has gone through a lot of changes, at the urging of the gymnasts who came out as survivors of the abuse, but not enough.

            Simone Biles, at 24, is a unicorn. She is still dominating the sport and becoming better with age, which represents something completely new in women’s gymnastics. She’s been able to speak up, and have her own life, while still being at the top of her sport. The question is whether her success is a sign of new things to come, or just a moment in time that will pass.

            I took gymnastics as a kid, so I have a deep appreciation for the talent and hard work it takes to be even a good gymnast, let alone a great one. It was clear, very early on, that I didn’t have the right body for gymnastics. By the time I was eleven years old, and tried one more time to take gymnastics classes, I was five foot six and surrounded by much smaller girls. My feet were too big for the balance beam, and I didn’t have the faith to throw myself forward over the vault, or backwards into a back handspring, for fear of falling on my head.

“I did that once, but it wasn’t my fault.”

            I wanted to be a good gymnast (and dancer and swimmer and tennis player), but my knees were swollen with Osgood Shlatter’s by the time I was ten years old, and my feet were flat, and my ankles and hips and shoulders were injury prone because of my loose ligaments.

            My childhood was also a time when it was still totally acceptable for teammates and coaches to humiliate the weakest athletes with verbal abuse.

“I’d be good at that, Mommy.”

            When I watch the Olympics it all comes back to me, all of that failure, and not being in the right body, and the name calling and ostracizing. I’ve been working hard lately at trying to respect my body as it is, but there’s so much history behind my self-loathing, and so many voices yelling at me and blaming me for things I could not control, that it’s hard to move forward.

            It’s so much easier for me to respect my dogs and accept their bodies as they are. I can see how differently they are built: Cricket has long legs and Ellie has short ones; Cricket has a long neck and almost no waist, and Ellie is built like a tank. If I tried to starve Ellie down to her sister’s weight, she would die, first of all, and her corpse would still be “too big.” But she is the right weight for the body she has, and she is strong and runs fast and loves her life, and her food. I can accept that about Ellie, and I can accept Cricket’s personality quirks – like her attack reflex whenever she feels likes she’s in danger, which is most of the time. I can accept and celebrate who they are, and I can adapt to each of them differently, but I can’t do the same for myself.

“We’re perfect just the way we are.”

            I’m not sure I understand what draws me to watch the Olympics, given all of this. Maybe it’s just because, traditionally, there’s not much else to watch on TV while the Olympics are on, in the middle of the summer. But there’s also something magical about the athletes and what they can do. The judging of each skill becomes tedious – like having to count the number of rotations in the air, or separate out a field of swimmers by hundredths of a second – but the dedication of the athletes, and the amazing heights they can reach inspires me.

            So maybe this year, when I inevitably do watch the Olympics, I will remind myself to work on self-compassion and tell myself that I can admire the athletes’ efforts without putting myself down. And maybe I can even send compassionate thoughts to all of the athletes who don’t quite reach the top of the mountain, but deserve to be celebrated for their talent and their efforts in getting so close.

            I’m not promising that I can stay positive and constructive through the whole two weeks, but maybe the games will surprise me by protecting the Japanese people from the spread of Covid and honoring the athletes who have been abused, by striving to keep them safe in the future, and by celebrating all of the athletes at the games and what it took for them to get there, especially after a year of lockdown and uncertainty, instead of just celebrating the winners. But even if those things don’t happen, I can remind myself that honoring the athletes and their accomplishments doesn’t mean I support the IOC or the Japanese government for putting their people at risk, or the individual sports federations that put their own financial survival over the wellbeing of their athletes. I can work hard to hold both realities inside of me at the same time without ignoring either one. It’ll just take some practice.

“We’ll wait here.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

68 responses »

  1. I wanted to be good at gymnastics, one of the few things in gym class I had a shot at being good at. It didn’t work out for me, although two of my three sisters excelled. So I really identify with not being good enough and the sadness that brings. It also leads us to discount the things we are good at, so I hope you can learn to celebrate yourself more. I find the older I get, the more often I can say, “OK, this is me. And that’s OK.” Not all the time, unfortunately. I need to get a dog in my life again. They set a fine example!

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  2. I wanted to be good at gymnastics, one of the few things in gym class I had a shot at being good at. It didn’t work out for me, although two of my three sisters excelled. So I really identify with not being good enough and the sadness that brings. It also leads us to discount the things we are good at, so I hope you can learn to celebrate yourself more. I find the older I get, the more often I can say, “OK, this is me. And that’s OK.” Not all the time, unfortunately. I need to get a dog in my life again. They set a fine example!l

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  3. I’m sorry you have to deal with negative thoughts when you watch the Olympics. I wasn’t aware that gymnasts were sexually abused either. I agree that the Olympics should be canceled because of COVID-19.

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  4. Enjoy watching the Olympics and remind yourself that you write beautifully.

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  5. I’m losing interest in these sporting events when the athletes use them as a platform to shame their country.

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  6. Margaret Sharp

    Thank you for your enlightening post.

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  7. I hear you about being shamed for your body type as a kid, when it is entirely out of your control. It probably is mostly out of your control as an adult as well. I hope you can get through this year’s Olympic Games in a peaceful frame of mind.

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  8. I agree that the Tokyo Olympics should have been cancelled again. I am not in favour of them going ahead, not with the current state of Covid in Japan.

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  9. I usually watch swimming, water polo, and gymnastics. I’m not sure I want to watch anything this year. I feel for the athletes, but my cynical mind goes to the money side of things and the egos of administrators and politicians, which as being puffed up. I’d prefer we focus on public health.
    I will be interested in the after-action reporting on respiratory and sexually transmitted infections and comparisons with previous events.

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  10. I never watch any sport, as I find it boring and repetitive. I also never care who wins. It seems like such an obvious thing to say, but if watching the Olympics gives you triggers and anxiety, just don’t watch any of it.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  11. I do not mean to be rude at all and I certainly don’t want to diminish the trauma you have been through (my heart truly goes out to you while I read your post!), but if you know that this will be such a triggering and hard event to watch for you, wouldn’t it be better for you to skip it altogether and watch the summarised versions on the news or on sorts websites?

    I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but I could feel the hurt and abuse you went through while reading this, and subjcting yourself to something that brings up so much pain and bad memories is a form of self-harm actually. Watch something on netflix. Read a good book instead. Get back to meditation and do things that are good for YOU. All the love!!

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  12. Can I suggest you don’t watch the Olympics. There must be plenty of other stuff to watch on the tv.

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  13. I’m not one to watch those games, either Winter or Summer. They hosted the Winter Olympics here in Utah in 2002 and it was (from a locals point of view) horrible. With the threat of Covid hanging over the thing, despite the cost, it ought to have been cancelled IMHO. How much bigger will the spread of the virus be because they insisted on going ahead? As to the body shaming we do towards ourselves, ‘our’ generation (you’re a couple of decades younger than me, but the body shaming and bullying trend was danged hard to kill), was raised to believe we had to look a certain way. It takes a lot of time and effort to stop ourselves from being mean about things we took as standard. I’m glad that trend towards having to look a certain way is ending. The bullying too. Not everyone is athletic, but not everyone is good at math either, nor excels at writing. It’s learning to embrace the differences and allowing ourselves, as well as others the benefit of letting things be. We all have strengths, maybe we should focus on those and remember we all have flaws too. Dogs are much kinder to themselves as you pointed out, and mostly accept each other as is. We can learn a lot from our pets!

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  14. Interesting to see a different perspective about the Olympics. For so long the abuses were never talked about or acknowledged. I hope that things can be better. I do worry about all the exposure to covid and the irresponsibility involved in letting it go on. I worry not only about the crowds but also about the athletes. It would be tragic to see them getting sick despite being vaccinated.

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  15. I was no good at gym at school, the best I could manage was a cartwheel, something else Bully Teacher picked on me for. I used to enjoy watching the ice skating and gymnastics on TV, then coverage was at ridiculous times halfway through the night and I was at work when they did the re-runs in the afternoons. No TV now, but I’m still amazed at how they can bend and spin themselves.

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  16. If there is ever a Dog Olympics I want to enter Max into the sleeping competition. Gold medal caliber.

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  17. You are the only other person I know that had Osgood Shlatter’s, as I did in the fourth grade. Guess we were just never cut out to be gymnasts! 🌎

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  18. Even before the stories about abusive coaches became common, there was always something uncomfortable about Olympic level gymnastics. Always felt those young girls were going to have a difficult and conflicted future.

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  19. I always look forward to the Olympics but agree that the dialogue around success in sport in utter nonsense. There is always one winner (never the one who came 4th), saying, ‘if you want it enough’ or some other self congratulatory platitude. It needs to be acknowledged that these people are exceptions. If you don’t have the right physical attibutes, no amount of training or self motivation will enable you to compete at that level. I loved swimming, I still do, but I am also 5 ft 6 and would have never made it in competions. We hold a world Triathlon competion in our town, and the athletes use the pool where we swim for training over the weekend of the event. Believe me, these are not people who you see on the street, they are not the same size or shape as the rest of us. I just bathe in the glory of swimming in the pool as Olympic medallists go up and down like dolphins at the other side and they are not solely competitioni swimmers. Michael Phelps is just built differently from other swimmers – lucky boy.

    The decision to go ahead in Japan is as you say all about money and the vast investment that is needed to host the games. It is difficult to see how these can even begin to compare with other occasions. I really do feel for the people of Japan, and it is nonsense, but I will be watching, even if it is just the triathlon so see how our local boy gets along.

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    • I hope some of the money ends up going to the well being of the athletes and supporting young athletes who will never make a living at the sport they love; but I’m not holding my breath.

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  20. And you went on to become a great writer, Rachel. Simon Biles would likely admire ‘Yeshiva Girl’ if given the opportunity to read it.
    The COVID situation, I agree, it’s going to be scary with spectators and athletes alike in Tokyo. We must realize that we can’t extinguish this disease, only manage our behaviors to control it.

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    • It’s so strange to watch how Covid has played out in different places. We’re still wearing masks in certain situations in New York, but it feels safe here; whereas across the country there are places where Covid is still surging and killing a lot of people. It’s hard to wrap my mind around it.

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  21. Far as I’m concerned, the Olympics doesn’t exist. Its all about money rather than actual sports, anyhow.

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  22. For me. The Olympics is all about travel, as the contestants rom various countries arouses my curiosity to expand where I might go in the future.

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  23. I have similar thoughts and feelings, Rachel (latent insecurities included), but am looking forward to the upcominng Olympic anyway.

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  24. None of us can be good at everything we see others do. Living in the past will only depress you so live in the present to bring you peace. Who cares what the ghosts of the past said about you. Those people should not rent space in your brain. In the present you are a talented writer, a loving person and kind to animals. The present means more than the past. The past just teaches us lessons on how to have a better future. 👍🏽

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  25. Looking forward to it too! Great post and love the pics!! 🙂

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  26. One of the reasons there is competition is to learn early on in life not to waste time trying to excel in that area.

    I was very fortunate to have one time in elementary school where people didn’t laugh at my abysmal lack of ability in sports. I was always the last to be chosen for a team. There were around 30 kids on the basketball court and we were all to jump rope until only one person was standing. While others wanted to show off how fast they could jump, I paced my jumping and I was the last one still hopping over the rope. Never have I been so satisfied as the day that all those people who made fun of me had to watch as I kept jumping. To this day, I do a job better alone — my way — than with a team. 😊

    You have a LOT of talent. Few have a blog that consistently has over 100 comments for each post. I would bet that none of the girls in your gym class write as well as you do, either.

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  27. I’m surprised that, despite the banning of international tourism and with Japan’s low rate of Covid vaccinations, the Olympics will still be scheduled. It’ll be interesting to see how everything turns out. While attending a workout class, I noticed a balance beam in the room and got onto it and “walked” the length of it. I shook my head and tried to imagine the training it took for any gymnast to perform the awesome feats on this and all of the other apparatuses.
    Art

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  28. Love yourself, just as you are. Your body has gotten you this far, honor it. Most of us were not meant to be Olympians. That doesn’t mean we are not special or worthy of love. Just try to be the person your doggies already know you are!

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  29. It’s a great event and of course, money has it roll to play.

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  30. I have always enjoyed the Olympics, more events like Hockey, Track, Gymnastics, and the more “original” games. I love America, but I love the America that became through the Revolutionary War, as difficult as those times were, and as difficult it was for the founding fathers to unite a people from all over the world with different views. I still remember the bicentennial fireworks my dad took us to, so little we were. With time, I learned more about the foundations of this country. It’s amazing that this country ever became, yet the people believed. And that so many worked so hard, that we went through two world wars, men and others dying for freedom and to end tyranny. **In watching the Olympics, I find difficult to watch any U.S. team with members that don’t salute our flag, don’t embrace our history (The good and the difficulties, which gave rise to more good, sometimes eventually.), and don’t realize how amazing their opportunities are as a result of America becoming and all the men and women who made this possible. Pride in America (Healthy Pride) is how we should approach the Olympics. **I can’t watch any team that doesn’t love their country.

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    • I haven’t seen any disrespect like that, honestly. I’m worried about the Covid cases among the athletes, and the risks and pressures these kids face. They’re so young! They’ve worked so hard to get to the Olympics and I worry that their health, mental and physical, isn’t being taken seriously enough. I hope we can do better going forward.

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  31. Beautifully written. What you lack in gymnastic capabilities, you more than make up in your writing. 🙂

    Reply

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