Editor’s Desk: My Olympic Games backflip as I realise just how much the world needs the Tokyo Games

Headshot of Kate Campbell
Kate CampbellGeraldton Guardian
Ariarne Titmus reacts with her coach Dean Boxall after winning the gold medal in the women's 200m freestyle final.
Camera IconAriarne Titmus reacts with her coach Dean Boxall after winning the gold medal in the women's 200m freestyle final. Credit: Delly Carr/Getty Images

A line in one of my fave movies, Dirty Dancing, goes “when I’m wrong I say I’m wrong”.

Granted, it was said by a conservative 1960s doctor to his teenage daughter’s older lover/dance teacher who he had falsely accused of a crime. But it could easily have been me this week, eating humble pie, saying sorry to the juggernaut that is the Olympic Games.

In my column last week, I was an Olympics party pooper.

I may have used the words “anticlimax”, “boring” and “why bother?”. It was hard to get excited about a bunch of sports at a time when the world’s dumpster fire was still blazing strong. But just a week later, I’m standing on the apology podium, saying I was wrong. In keeping with the Dirty Dancing analogy, I put the Olympics in a corner, and nobody should do that.

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Tokyo 2020 (a year late) is just what we need. A lounge room distraction, a salve and a soothing balm to the harsh reality many are still living through. It feels damn good to have a reason to smile, to cheer and to feel united for a good reason, not because we’re all at the mercy of a rampant virus and know what lockdown feels like.

Ariarne Titmus’ swimming coach Dean Boxall.
Camera IconAriarne Titmus’ swimming coach Dean Boxall.

Most of us wouldn’t have gone to the extent Ariarne Titmus’ coach Dean Boxall did in his epic glass-humping antics, but his celebration could be seen as a manifestation (or meme) for a country letting the shackles come off after being deprived of joy and celebration for too long.

Arguments can still be mounted — and convincingly so — as to why Tokyo 2020 should have been cancelled altogether when the world is still grappling with COVID-19. But as soon as the starting pistol sounded, it seemed near-on impossible not to get swept up in the jubilation, tears, triumph and gutsy efforts of these athletes (in sports both familiar and baffling) who have had to wait five years for this brief moment in time, when their career window is so narrow anyway.

The lack of crowds doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. Seeing the crossovers to the athletes’ family reactions has been worth a gold medal in itself.

While new Olympic champions like “Arnie”, Kaylee McKeown, Zac Stubblety-Cook, Jessica Fox and our rowing “Great Eight” became household names in the space of minutes, my heart swelled just as much at the smaller moments — Titmus’ tears when embracing her coach; Kaylee McKeown talking about honouring her late father; countries winning their first-ever gold medals; athletes setting personal bests and thrilled to just have made it to Tokyo; and amazing comeback stories like Aussie surfer Owen Wright going from learning to walk, talk and surf again after suffering a brain injury six years ago to ecstatically winning a bronze medal.

And there have been lows, but living in the age of COVID puts those into perspective. Although coming first (especially when we beat the US) feels great, we all know there are bigger things in life than winning or losing. And that’s why there should be no condemnation of star gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to pull out for mental health reasons.

Surely we have come far enough as a society to support someone’s tough decision to put their own wellbeing first and not call them weak or a quitter. You try to live up to a superhuman expectation of perfection and defy the law of physics by landing a double backflip with three twists, and see if you can cope.

It’s an Olympics unlike any other but that’s not a bad thing and it’s one we will surely remember for the times it was set in. Yes, we could have done without these Tokyo Games in a strict, sterile COVID sense, but did we as a universal community need it as a morale boost? In the words of gold medallist McKeown: “F... yeah!”

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