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Fresh eyes review Olympic events for their spectator sport appeal

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TOKYO – There are two ways to enjoy the Olympics from a viewing perspective: as an expert of an under-covered sport eager to see the storylines from the intervening years thrust into the spotlight; or as a blissfully awed idiot who can’t believe humans are capable of whatever they just witnessed.

For the most part, I have spent my time in Tokyo pretending to be the former while actually being the latter. I had the incredible fortune of watching the best in the world (usually) compete at sports I’d never seen before, at least not live.

After two weeks of furiously googling whether it’s a match or a set or a game or a run or a race or a route or a routine being contested on a pitch or a field or a court or a ring or a track or a course or whatever it is that shot putters compete on … I’m ready to admit ignorance and provide the honest impressions of a new spectator at some Olympic events.

Beach volleyball

You don’t need another story about the absence of spectators in Tokyo but the truth is, at a lot of venues, there were people in the seats — media, sure, but also staffers and stakeholders and, when applicable, teammates (or rivals!). Entire softball teams watched the gold medal match.

Unfortunately, I went to beach volleyball on days that were either too hot or too wet — most days were — to attract too many people. The result was that the beautiful beach-adjacent (but not, for the record, meaningfully beachfront) stadium-cum-Easy-Bake Oven was one of the emptier stadiums I actually saw. But unlike some sports, which felt like sad high school practices without much of a crowd, it made beach volleyball feel even more approachable — like you could walk right out on the sand and start serving. If it didn’t scald your feet first.

In Tokyo, beach volleyball wasn’t the party or rave that it supposedly is in most Summer Games — despite the best efforts of the in-house DJs — but it was eminently watchable. You could kill a whole day, or the whole Olympics if you didn’t have somewhere else to be, letting one easy-to-understand match run right into the next.

Skateboarding — Women’s Street

Brace yourself for this one: I don’t love Olympic skateboarding. At least not the street event. I found that the talent on display felt undercut by the disjointed nature of performing tricks discretely. Even on the “run” portion of the event — as opposed to the single tricks — all the pressure was on whether each trick would land. Which mostly just made me notice how often they didn’t.

The vibe, however, was impeccable. Even with literally Olympic medals on the line, the young cadre of skaters chatted and cheered amongst themselves throughout the competition. The effect was affectionately voyeuristic, like watching some unedited footage of a reality show about cool, young Instagram and TikTok influencers. It made me feel about a billion years old — and highlighted how one of the things the Olympics fail to do is give us the kind of actual insight into niche communities that people have come to crave.

Lifestyles of internet famous Gen Zers is a genre of intrigue and opportunity for content that isn’t going away. Olympic skateboarding alluded to that, without really understanding or being able to capture where that culture is going.

That said, even in “uniforms,” I loved the style.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 05: Keegan Palmer of Team Australia competes during the Men's Park Final on day thirteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Urban Sports Park on August 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Keegan Palmer of Team Australia competes in the Men's Park skateboarding event at the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Skateboarding — Park

I didn’t go to the skateboarding’s park events — which were even younger and seemed significantly more dynamic — but I did stumble upon an impromptu practice taking place on a plywood halfpipe about 15 feet from the Olympic family lounge. It was maybe the most mesmerizing athletic display I saw in Japan.

I don’t skateboard, don’t know skateboarders, and had never been this close to the endless pendulum of a semi cylinder alive with daredevils. You could close your eyes and enjoy it: the rumble of wheels on rough wood punctured by an abrupt silence as the skater takes flight and then either the comforting continuation of the cruising hum or else a crash — either of which will make your breath catch.

BMX racing

At my first BMX event, American rider Connor Fields crashed and had to be taken off the track on a stretcher. The competitors had looked like indestructible legos with their oversized plastic helmet heads. Until they started wiping out.

Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the cost-benefit calculation that goes into exchanging all-but-assured injury for an experience that lasts less than a minute. Maybe you could say the same about a lot of Olympic sports — but at the BMX finals, even a serious calamity didn’t seem to phase the other riders. I mean, Alise Willoughby still competes even after a BMX accident paralyzed her husband. And he still comes to the track — as her coach!

It must be one hell of a rush to be worth getting back up there. Bethany Shriever, who won gold for Great Britain, said she had worked in therapy to control her starting gate jitters — and jittery seems like a very reasonable way to feel just before a BMX race.

It threw into stark relief how the difference between me and an elite Olympic athlete isn’t just physical — it takes a jarring single-minded tenacity to want to win at, literally, any cost.

Softball

Nowhere did the game itself feel more urgent than at the softball gold medal rematch 13 years in the making between Team USA and Japan. My day job in baseball leaves me particularly primed to care about people who excel with a bat and a ball, but who are desperate for the fickle validation of the IOC because the mainstream sports world doesn’t reward female athletes. The Olympics are a good idea because — from a pure platform perspective — they’re an opportunity to prove that people do emotionally invest in women’s sports (just ask Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, the USWNT, etc.) and an opportunity for those women to capitalize on their talent.

There was so much pathos inherent in playing the last guaranteed Olympic softball game. And then on top of that, it was the best pure story I saw play out in Tokyo. A trio of rival pitchers facing off on either end of their careers. From an American perspective, it was a bittersweet silver, but I’ll leave Japan believing that the best untold story of the Olympics is about 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno, who bested them both times.

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 14 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 14 slideshow embed

Equestrian — Dressage

It doesn’t make sense that Tokyo 2020 would intentionally make a venue feel more rarified just because it’s associated with such a snooty sport. But I swear the air was less sticky at the absolutely massive and impeccably manicured equestrian area.

Full disclosure: I rode growing up so I actually like and respect horse sports. Most horse sports, anyway. I competed as a jumper and snickered about the horse dancing from my own stuck-up perspective.

That said, in person it’s a hoot, and undeniably beautiful. Even if it strikes you as silly that they’re here at the Olympics, the horses just are visually arresting. I mean, how often do you watch a 2,000-pound athlete compete? But, uh yeah, even with my marginally informed perspective coming in, I still had no idea how to parse the scoring system.

Baseball

The rivalry match between Japan and Korea, which packed the part of the stadium behind home plate with off-duty Olympic volunteers, almost convinced me that I was too harsh in calling the entirety of the tournament “mediocre.”

Every time the home team played at Yokohama Stadium, it was the most palpable reminder of how disappointing it is to host an Olympics that local fans can’t attend. Even if the Games were unpopular among a certain segment, or even the majority, of the population, people still lined up outside the park to wave to the bus of Japanese players. Maybe they didn’t love the Olympics being here, but they do love baseball. I wish I had gotten to experience the full extent of that enthusiasm.

Still think it should be swapped out for a home run derby, though.

Rugby Sevens

I only watched one U.S. women’s rugby game and it is faster than I expected, and on a way bigger field than I was aware of.

Feels like it should be an easier sell to an American audience. But then again, I didn’t stay either.

Golf

Yeah, that’s right, I had never watched golf before.

Turns out, it’s not especially well suited to spectating in 100 degrees. And yet, the day spent out on the course felt like a break from the bustle of virtually every other venue. It felt, frankly, barely like the Olympics. But in a good way? The lack of fans anywhere cost every sport differently. At golf, it made it essentially impossible to sense that there was a comeback happening on a different hole.

I got lucky: The long, slow building of the stakes paid off impeccably — with the men’s gold medal determined on the 18th hole of the last day — but I probably could have watched it on TV.

Weightlifting

Deep within an otherwise empty, towering glass convention center in downtown Tokyo was an auditorium filled with women lifting several times their own body weight and screaming guttural cries in both triumph and, I assume, agony alongside a sound track of cheesy gym music.

I was not prepared for how viscerally frightening weightlifting would be. All sports are about pushing the limits — this just felt literal: pushing the limits of what you can pick up before your arms are ripped from their sockets or something pops. I found myself looking away in something like squeamishness when a particular lift seemed unlikely. And yet, it’s so easy to root for, especially since it was one of the most anonymous events. I wanted everyone to win, or at least get their very heavy barbells overhead without hurting themselves. (Do they ever fall on someone? Don’t tell me.) 

Even when an American woman won silver, there were only a couple media members to make note of it — in dramatic contrast to the tearful excitement of the weightlifters themselves and the celebrations that echoed around the emptiness.

Gymnastics — Women’s individual floor exercise

In case you couldn’t tell that it was the Summer Games’ premiere event, gymnastics hosts its own little opening ceremony of sorts with non-athlete performances before each day. And that was when Simone Biles wasn’t even scheduled to compete.

I thought floor routines might seem more effortful in person than they do on TV, highlighting the incredible strength of the athletes. But instead, they seemed even more weightless live — like a theater production of flight that’s designed to look magical but is actually accomplished by barely visible wires. Except, of course, there are no wires.

Watching an American woman win gymnastics gold was the most holy s*** I’m at the Olympics moment I had in Tokyo. And it was followed up almost instantly by members of the Italian media getting into a near fist-fight with the volunteers working the mix zone access after their first medal in the sport since 1928. A swift reminder of the occasionally unhealthy intensity people have for this particular event.

Sport climbing

Even if the actual practitioners don’t love the format this year, Olympic climbing is a near-perfect event to casually spectate. The scoring is, admittedly, convoluted. And the qualifiers drag on. But the action itself is addictive viewing.

It has been suggested before that a normie compete in each Olympic event as a control group to provide context. And yes, they should. But they could skip bouldering — the middle and most unexpected aspect in the triple-discipline event — where even the best climbers provide ample examples of how borderline-impossible the Olympic routes are. Every attempt is like watching an action movie, and the athletes are essentially superheroes capable of saving themselves from cinematic peril. Truly, I would have thought you needed CGI to make this happen.

Shot put

If you sit high enough in the cavernous track stadium, which also served as the site of the Opening Ceremony, you can watch humans of all shapes and sizes working to determine the outer limits of physical ability. It’s like looking at a life-size, live-action diorama demonstrating the fundamental building blocks of, well, athletics: Running and jumping and throwing heavy objects. If you go to watch one event, you’ll see them all — or at least an overlapping array of world records being set and shattered. It feels at once elemental and cutting edge.

New to all of them, I found it hard to see the nuances of the individual events, or even know what to look for when it comes to differentiating among such seemingly simple skills. But altogether it felt quintessentially “Olympic.”

Good place to wonder if something has to be a game to be a sport.

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