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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?