Why I'll be watching the Olympics

Tokyo 2020: “Why, despite allegations of sexism, racism and more, I’ll be watching the Olympics”

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Fitness has been a saviour for many during the pandemic and these Games are our chance to see the very best in the world do what we do every day – run, swim and jump – at unimaginable levels, says Strong Women editor, Miranda Larbi.

Summer 2012 was the best time to be a Londoner, hands down. I came back down from university in York to find my grubby part of the capital – a deeply unfashionable bit of east London – totally transformed into a sporting paradise. These days, I run past the stadium at which Jess Ennis and Mo Farah won their gold medals and cyclists pedal around the same velodrome that saw Victoria Pendleton win the women’s sprint.

The Olympics are magical. They have the power to inspire and transform the way we see strength and sport. Before those games, I was enchanted by athletes like Denise Lewis and Colin Jackson; after London, I was determined to get more involved in sports myself.

Allegations of racism and sexism in sport

The Tokyo 2021 games have been mired by both Covid-19 and a seemingly endless torrent of missteps by various international sporting bodies that have largely involved female athletes. From Afro-friendly swimming caps being banned by the International Swimming Federation to fining female volleyball teams for choosing to wear shorts rather than bikini bottoms, it seems we’ve heard more about women’s sports in the run-up to Tokyo for rampant sexism and misogynoir than for athletic achievement.

When we should have been celebrating double world champion Paralympian Oliva Breen’s success at the English Championships last weekend, we heard instead about her being shamed for wearing “inappropriately short” shorts. 

Even before attention turned towards the Games, elsewhere in sport, we saw the way Naomi Osaka was treated by the French Open and various sectors of the press after she left the competition citing poor mental health. She was fined, despite explaining that she’d been suffering from “long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018”, and that dealing with the world’s media had exacerbated the “huge waves of anxiety” and nerves she’d been experiencing. 

A month later at Wimbledon, we saw similar behaviour in response to Emma Raducanu, who retired from her match after experiencing chest pains, much to the horror of professional hothead John McEnroe, who speculated that Raducanu could not handle the occasion, saying that it had “got a little bit too much”. Piers Morgan claimed that “real pressure” was flying an aircraft during the war – not playing a game of tennis.

Weed politics and misogyny

And then, of course, we have the matter of Sha’Carri Richardson, the American sprinter who was barred from competing after testing positive for marijuana earlier this month. 

When you consider the cocktail of performance-enhancing chemicals that many of these professional athletes must be taking (remember when Mo Farah ‘forgot’ to mention that he was taking L-carnitine before the 2014 London Marathon?), it seems wild that someone would get suspended for smoking a substance that has no known benefits to sprinting. Interestingly, in Dallas, where Richardson is from, there’s been an attempt to decriminalise weed possession in recent years in a bid to address racial disparities in drug arrests.

Michael Phelps, by comparison, was pictured with a bong in February 2009. The Olympic Committee, though “disappointed in the behaviour”, said that going forward, it was “confident that Michael will consistently set the type of example we all expect from a great Olympic champion.” Indeed, he went on that summer to win five golds at the World Aquatics Championships. 

Former NBA player, Jay Williams, said in an interview with FoxBusiness that “80% of the league smokes weed.”

Can it be that these sportsmen are considered to be far more valuable as athletes than Richardson? If entire leagues are consuming THC (the psychoactive substance in marijuana) – up and down the US – then why go after a lone sprinter? When the NBA started the season last year in Florida, it said that it wouldn’t test athletes for weed and they’ve not done so since. At 21, Richardson’s only competed in one international competition (the 4x100m relay); she took gold. 

And then we have the bonkers stuff that’s been happening in Japan in the run-up to the Opening Ceremony due to take place in Tokyo on Friday: the numbers of participants who have already come down with Covid-19, and the opening ceremony official sacked just days before the event for jokes about the Holocaust he made in the past. It just seems like one thing after the other.

Why the Olympics are still worth tuning in to

Despite all of this, though, I still maintain that the Olympics is going to be the highlight of an otherwise pretty dark, depressing few years. Fitness has been a saviour for many during this pandemic and these Games are our chance to see the very best in the world do what we do every day – run, swim, jump - at unimaginable levels. These athletes will come on our screens to show us the magic of the human body and what it’s possible to achieve, often from humble beginnings.

You don’t have to be wealthy to succeed in athletics; you have to be determined. Getting up at 5am every day to schlep to a pool, track or pitch takes resilience and a single-mindedness that many of us struggle to imagine. Yet, we all have the opportunity to have a go at these activities and to experience a little of what our brilliant Olympians enjoy every day.

From Friday, you’ll find me glued to the box and my BBC Sport updates. And when I’m not yelling for Dina to get that gold, I’ll be out on the pavement myself, chugging up to Victoria Park and imagining that I’m running to that shimmering finish line.

For Olympics updates, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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