What we learned about sports and athletes — and ourselves — at the Tokyo Summer Olympics
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many experts warned the Summer Games should be canceled or postponed again, host city Tokyo took drastic measures to curb the spread of the disease, declaring a state of emergency. Spectators were not allowed, leading to a very different energy at the competitions.
The delayed Olympics also featured new sports including surfing, skateboarding, karate and sport climbing.
Then there was Simone Biles, the U.S. gymnast who entered the Games already having four gold medals under her belt. Despite her status as perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time, she actually faced backlash from fans when she decided to withdraw from competition to take care of her mental health after a case of the “twisties” and the death of a family member.
Brendan Dwyer, Ph.D., director of research and distance learning at the VCU Center for Sport Leadership, said, as a society, we don’t expect our athletes to struggle with mental health issues. But everyone deals with stress and anxiety, and athletes often deal with the additional stress of training and competition.
As the Games close, Dwyer shares some of his views on the Tokyo Olympics in general and new aspects that emerged over the past few weeks.
The actions of Simone Biles during the women’s team all-around final certainly struck a nerve with the American public.
Some struggled to understand how such an accomplished athlete could quit and give up on her teammates, while others were much more sympathetic, even empathetic, to the challenges of mental health exhibited by athletes. This dualistic reaction is a timely and important conversation in athletics.
We often think, “an individual like Simone Biles has everything. What could be so hard for her?” The truth is athletes are human. However, they represent a group least likely to speak up and seek help. Sports have always been an environment where individuals are expected, even coerced, to fight through adversity, never give up, and play through the pain. It is perceived by some athletes that admitting any form of weakness, especially mental, could hinder relationships, playing time and their stature within the team. By not addressing it, however, these challenges can take a toll on an individual mentally and physically manifesting into burnout, withdrawal from friends and family or disordered sleeping or eating, just to name a few.
In Biles’ situation, she tried to keep competing. You could see it in her last few events as she struggled to stick important landings, she was battling something bigger. The “twisties,” or when a gymnast loses control of their body midair, is a significant issue at her level. It is nearly impossible to compete in gymnastics without complete mental and body awareness. We have seen similar mind-body disconnections in other sports. Baseball players who lose the ability to throw from second base to first, or quarterbacks who hear footsteps in the backfield. However, a mental mistake in Biles’ situation could be catastrophic. She is often launching herself 15 to 20 feet in the air. Combine this issue with the enormous expectations already placed on her. She is one of only a few recognizable faces of the U.S. Olympic team and, at 24, she has been dubbed the greatest women’s gymnast of all time. I guarantee you this is not a decision she took lightly. I think it was best for her team and obviously best for her safety. Biles’ decision not to compete took courage, and it will likely give countless young athletes the confidence to speak up and seek help before it is too late.
Ultimately, Biles’ teammates stepped up. That is what teammates do.
They won a silver medal in the team all-around. Her teammate, Suni Lee, won the individual all-around gold medal. As a team, they won five medals.
USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, which has quite the checkered past, provided unwavering support. A number of current and former Olympians had her back as well. Biles kept practicing and was able to return to the balance beam final and earn a bronze medal. This is an important achievement not only for her but for all athletes and non-athletes looking for the courage to seek help, receive treatment and know they can get a second chance.
Athletes struggle with mental health. Humans in all walks of life struggle with mental health. This should not be surprising. University athletic departments and professional organizations have come to this realization and have begun to invest in additional psychologists and counselors to support young athletes. However, the general public, and in particular sports fans, need to re-humanize our athletes. They are not machines. They represent all of us. Our triumphs, our failures and everything in between.
I think this re-humanization is even more important for Olympic athletes, as they only have two weeks in the national spotlight. For casual spectators and fans who watch sports like gymnastics, swimming or track and field once every four years, it is easy to expect our athletes to compete at the highest level on command. They forget that training takes years, even decades. An athlete’s performance can ebb and flow within a routine or an event, but most certainly throughout a season. And while they attempt to peak at the Olympics and World Championships, it requires a tremendous amount of hard work, expertise and focus. It also includes a healthy amount of luck. And as the flame goes out in Tokyo on Sunday, hundreds of millions of fans will return to watching their favorite sports, but these athletes have July 26, 2024, already circled on their calendars. Their journey to reach the Olympic podium starts all over again.
The International Olympic Committee has had a number of challenging moments and controversies in the past few decades, but the most pressing issue for stakeholders is the cost of putting on the Games in the first place.
Dozens of cities and countries have bid to host the Olympic Games each cycle for over a century now, as it is believed to bring a number of direct and indirect returns. That number has dwindled in the past as the costs of hosting the Games have skyrocketed. For the bidding process for the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympics, there were five initial bids. Three withdrew leaving Paris (’24) and Los Angeles (’28) as the only options. Why? Lack of public support. Residents in major cities are realizing how much the Games cost and believe it is not worth it.
Each Olympics demands bigger and better. We are fickle consumers. We want a better show. We increase the size of the teams, the number of sports, and even the number of countries competing. Facilities have to be state of the art, so we can break world records. The athlete villages have to be luxurious. The airport has to be upgraded, same for the mass-transit system, and thousands of hotel rooms will be added. All of this does not even include the cost of operating the Games or protecting the athletes, fans and structures.
Before COVID-19, Tokyo was way over budget. In December 2019, the Tokyo Olympic Committee estimated spending to be $12.6 billion. When they clinched the bid in 2013, they projected a total of $7.3 billion. Cost overruns are not new, and in fact, compared to recent Games hosted in Sochi ($44 billion) and Beijing ($40 billion), $13 billion is a discount. As the International Olympic Committee sees the demand to host the Games dwindle, they are looking to use new strategies. Tokyo did a good job of utilizing established stadiums and provided minimal upgrades to infrastructure. This trend will continue. You will see more cities with larger hotel capacities, facilities that can be renovated as opposed to constructed and well-established infrastructure. Tokyo, despite the budget overruns, is the model for the future Summer Games. However, the impact of COVID-19 and the lack of tourists and fans brought about a number of other challenges.
The final price tag for Japan is now estimated to be around $28 billion. The cost of the postponement has been devastating, as many municipalities and the Tokyo Olympic Committee were forced to swallow the majority of its original investments. The lack of tourists and fans has also hurt service industries counting on an influx of foreign money.
Nowhere has the lack of tourists been more evident than in the stadiums.
This has been one of the most underreported storylines of the Games. First, it has been extremely impressive to see the athletes’ ability to perform with no one there. Athletes thrive off a crowd’s energy. A packed stadium or arena helps heighten focus and raise endorphin levels for athletes prior to an event. It is unique and awe-inspiring to see these record-breaking performances without crowd motivation. Second, the fans and the athletes have missed the beautiful moments shared during Olympic triumph and defeat. Television provides some context, but each time we see an indelible moment, like a world record or photo finish, I am left wondering how magical it could have been for the thousands who were able to witness it live. There is nothing like a live sporting event.
In the end, Japan did the right thing. At the start of the Games, only 22% of its residents were fully vaccinated. They did what was most safe for their country, the athletes and the thousands of potential tourists. And, like so many other situations during the past 18 months, we are left in wonderment by the athletes’ performance under pressure, yet also left with what could have been had we had the chance to witness it together.
Speaking of television, the ratings are down and they are down big this year compared to Rio in 2016.
However, most of it is explainable. First, sports-broadcast television ratings have been on a decline for a number of years. It is an easy headline for a news outlet. However, it is primarily a function of how we watch sports today. We stream and use social media more than we used to, and the traditional measure of television ratings has not caught up. Our media viewership is much more fragmented. Second, the 13-hour time difference between Tokyo and the East Coast is difficult to overcome. In 2016, Rio was only a few hours ahead of the majority of the U.S. audience. This year, most sports fans know who won events when they wake up in the morning because they will get an alert on their phone or they will see it on social media. Thus, prime time becomes a highlight show. NBC has tried to do more live events in the morning in Tokyo that broadcast live at night in the United States, but it has been difficult for fans to follow what is live and what is not.
Despite all of this, the International Olympic Committee and its television partners will survive this dip in viewership. It is estimated that the National Football League set records for revenue during the 2020-21 season, with very few fans in the stands. Television viewership and the large contracts between FOX, CBS, NBC, DIRECTV and ESPN are the main reason behind the gains. Similarly, the Olympic Games television contracts and international sponsorships with companies like Visa and Toyota account for the majority of the organization’s revenue (65%). Ticket sales, on the other hand, account for roughly 10% of revenue.