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Life with Liz: An unusual Olympics

The Summer Olympic Games are always one of my favorite events. For one thing, they always bring a huge influx of new swimmers out for the team. It’s one of the few times that swimming gets to be as big a sport as football, basketball, baseball and hockey. But any Olympic Games is a soap opera of drama and action, as dreams are achieved, odds are overcome, hearts are broken and history is made.

But this year, like just about everything else, something just felt off for me. I think the insistence on referring to them as the 2020 Games, when everyone in the entire world is more than ready to forget 2020 ever happened contributed to that feeling. Swimming is my personal favorite, and to be honest, a chapter of swimming history closed when Michael Phelps retired. Not that there weren’t plenty of new and exciting swimmers to watch, but for me, the GOAT was a fixture that wasn’t easily replaced.

I also couldn’t help watching the races wondering about the athletes who everything would have been different for if the Games happened last year. The most obvious for me was Simone Manuel. I had watched Manuel’s star rise at Stanford and knew what a tremendous accomplishment it was for her to medal in 2016, as the first black woman to medal in a swimming event.

Unfortunately, for women, when you’re in your mid-20s, you’re just about over the hill as far as swimming goes. While she probably would have been a shoo-in last year, she struggled and failed to quality for the 100 Freestyle, and although she finished first in the 50 free, could not repeat that performance a few weeks later and failed to qualify for the final at the Olympics. On the flip side, newcomer Lydia Jacoby might not have even made last year’s team, let alone gold medaled in the 100 breast.

Then there were the American Relays, which in the swimming world will be the subject of much “what could have been” debate for a long time. Even my friends who don’t know the ins and outs of the swimming world could tell that Team USA didn’t quite get things right, especially when it came to the mixed medley.

Outside of the swimming world, I got caught up in the controversy over men’s uniforms versus women’s uniforms. I’m sorry, but getting fined because your uniform isn’t small enough is a new one for me. Do we really not have more important things to worry about? I think back to that internet famous photo of Jim Thorpe showing up to run with two different sneakers on at the 1912 Games. The ultimate irony of course, is that Thorpe was stripped of his medals for violating the amateur status required of Olympic athletes, while today’s Games are star-studded venues full of paid athletes.

And finally, there was the Biles controversy. What made me sad was that I could clearly see that the joy in competing and pushing the envelope was just not there for her. I’ve always thought that she had just enough defiance and grit in her that came through as she nailed those aggressive tumbling passes.

For me, standing up for herself, saying no, stepping back, those are all things to be admired, and maybe all of us should do some of that a little more. I know many women who pushed themselves beyond their breaking points, just because they didn’t want to let people down or because of the expectations that were placed on them by external forces.

Based on the backlash that surrounded her decision, though, I’m not sure too many of us will be stepping up to the Biles plate and saying “no” when our minds and our bodies tell us we just can’t continue like we are.

I can’t even wrap my head around the scoring controversy that surrounded her. Not awarding someone the points they’ve worked hard for because it might encourage others to reach for the same heights? If limits can’t be pushed, if the impossible can’t be attained at the Olympics, where can it be? As a coach, I’ve always believed doing the best that you can at the thing you love most is really what is at the heart of every competition. While I’ve seen many athletes fail their sports, I’ve never seen a sport fail an athlete like gymnastics failed Simone Biles.

As I watched a few evenings of competitions, I was struck by the empty stands and lack of spectators, an ever-present reminder that no matter who was winning the event, in general, the world is still losing at the hands of COVID-19.

As hard as we tried to pretend that things were normal, interview after interview of masked athletes kept driving home the point that this wasn’t very usual at all. The whole act of watching athletes’ families watching their athletes at watch parties or from their homes added yet another surreal level of weirdness to the whole production.

In just a few short months, we will be ready to spend our February evenings glued to the TV, watching the 2022 Winter Games from Beijing. I am so hoping that the stands can be packed with rabid fans, that families can be there to share in their athletes’ joys and sorrows, and that we as a world can all come together proudly in victory. It’s a long shot, but with some hard work, sacrifice and a little bit of luck, there’s no telling what we can accomplish!

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.