The surprising joys of the Olympics in lockdown

 

I have never paid much attention to the Olympics or Paralympics. The games always seemed too patriotic while simultaneously being too individualistic. Plus, I don’t enjoy watching people push themselves so hard for something to the point where they need to throw up. That said, I’m in Melbourne in lockdown, I’m working from home, and living alone and I need to have something on in the background while I work, or I feel too lonely. If I play music, I get distracted. So I decided to tune into the games and have them on in the background, volume low, to see if it helped me focus.

I began passively watching the Tokyo Olympics with a completely closed mind, fully prepared to be bored and returning to work in silence again. But I couldn’t have been more surprised.

What started as a focus strategy slowly became a pleasure, then a joy, and almost an obsession as I was introduced to entire galaxies of sports I hadn’t known existed. The canoe slalom and canoe sprint — both of which I’d never heard of — first had me hooked, as did the skateboarding, surfing and ‘sport climbing’.

In those weeks, the games became a companion. And it wasn’t just the sports themselves, it was the coverage around them. Commentators and event callers for Channel 7 like Bruce McAvaney guided viewers into events with intricate knowledge not only about the sports in question but about each team of athletes from all over the world, revealing insights into their stories with irresistible passion, dedication and pride.

And with the close of each event, with the medal ceremonies came the biggest reminder of the change the world has endured over the past 18 months, as the athletes stood on the podium and put medals on themselves and often on one another. It felt low-key, personal and heartwarming.

Similarly simple and touching displays of comradery happened not just within the Australian team but amongst communities of competitors.

 

'More than anything, the games highlighted how important it is to remain connected, to put aside differences, both national and personal, and come together to support each other.'

 

After the Olympic games finished, and before the Paralympics began, I was adrift. I began to feel empty and lost without the constant cycle of events on in the background. Needless to say, it was no longer just about facilitating focus. How would I live without an unending parade of athletes stretching previously-held notions of physical achievement?

When the Paralympics began, I was prepared. I’d had a taste for the games and knew it would bring me joy. But again, I underestimated how much.

It left me in awe. Compared to the Olympics, I found the Paralympics less competitive, more emotional, more wholesome. The athletes, no less driven and no less eager to win than their counterparts in the Olympics, seemed to exude a genuine, tangible joy whether winning a medal, making it to a final or simply being in a heat. It was moving to see.

And as with the Olympics, the Paralympics introduced me to sports I didn’t know existed including boccia, a ball sport related to bowls, and goalball, an indoor team ball sport by athletes with vision impairment. Wheelchair rugby was impressive in its steel-smashing violence and wheelchair basketball offered the additional challenge of the ring height being the same as in standing basketball. Some competitors in the para-equestrian events had no use of their lower limbs and yet managed to not only ride a horse, but compete in elite international competition.

Seeing the range of impairments amongst the athletes, hearing their stories and seeing them thrive despite challenges they have faced was both inspiring and, at times, overwhelming. Like the Olympic athletes, Paralympic athletes seemed aware of how incredible it was that the games were even going ahead during a global pandemic, how important it was for them to be supportive of both teammates and competitors, and the need to share their stories.

To share those stories were retired Paralympic athletes Kurt Fearnley and Annabelle Williams who graced prime-time television screens as part of Channel 7’s coverage of the games. Fellow retired Paralympic athletes like Bryce Alman, Curtis McGrath and Jessica Gallagher offered commentary. That felt like a step forwards for diversity; a sign that for all our sorrows, the world was, in some ways, becoming better. 

In both games, most athletes travelled interstate before the games for training and selection, and had been away from their homes for months. In Tokyo, they stayed in small close-knit groups, without the support of their families, often competing without their coaches in front of empty stadiums. They were competing alone for the benefit of those watching alone.

Yet you could see how united all the athletes were, and how proud they were when they saw someone win even if it meant they themselves had not.

I cried, I laughed and I felt grateful to the athletes and organisers for going ahead with the games despite the challenges of Covid-19. What a privilege it was to be able to watch this global community of athletes, coaches and commentators and to be let into their world. At times, the Channel 7 commentators began to feel like family letting me into a secret, and I can’t express how wonderful this felt.

For me, the games began as an exercise in staving off loneliness during workdays spent in lockdown. But I saw something I didn’t expect: I saw us all as a human team, in our 18-months-and-counting struggle against a pandemic. The games gave us all something positive to focus on and connected us, despite our isolation.

Through these demonstrations of strength, character, and will, I found something I hadn’t realised I was looking for, and for the first time I understand why people are drawn to sports. It’s the same reason we’re drawn to any big events: the joy of connection. More than anything, the games highlighted how important it is to remain connected, to put aside differences, both national and personal, and come together to support each other. Through the games, I didn’t find an emotional connection to sports so much as a connection to a global community, a world where we can cooperate, value one another, and work together to achieve an aim. And during lockdown, there’s no message worth more.

 

 

Brenna DempseyBrenna Dempsey is a young writer and activist. 

Main image: Silver medalist Kyle Chalmers (L) of Team Australia hugs gold medalist Caeleb Dressel of Team United States. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Brenna Dempsey, Olympics, Paralympics, Tokyo, loneliness, connection

 

 

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