Five-ring Circus

In Defense of the Olympics

They are horrible. I love them.

Olympians Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Logan Dooley.
The Olympics celebrate the virtues of effort and participation, from superstars like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps to lesser-known athletes like trampolinist Logan Dooley.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Johannes Eisele/AFP/GettyImages, Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/GettyImages, and Nick Laham/Getty Images.

For the past month, I’ve been geeking out on gymnastic routines, boning up on all the top archers—look out for Mexico’s Ernesto Horacio Boardman, who may well medal assuming they hand out gold for having a great name—and humming the theme from Chariots of Fire to the extreme annoyance of my friends and family. Ever since they shot Prince Charles out of a cannon to mark the end of the 2012 London Olympics, I have been waiting for the Rio Games to begin. And now they’re here. The Summer Olympics are back. And I’m sort of ashamed that I’m so excited.

It is hard for me to justify how much I love the Olympics because they are really the worst. The games send their host cities into crippling debt, require the construction of massive sports venues that have a useful life of approximately two weeks, and occasionally give Bob Costas pink eye. They are biennial exercises in corruption and disenfranchisement, braggadocious sporting showcases that bolster dictatorial strongmen and line the pockets of Big Flag.

While these criticisms are valid for all contemporary Olympic Games, the Rio Games are truly indefensible. These Olympics were supposed to showcase Brazil’s emergence as a modern economic power, a task that was complicated when the country’s economy collapsed in 2014 amidst a massive corruption scandal that touched all levels of government. In addition to the usual Olympic corruption, multiple public-health crises—the risk posed by the Zika virus might be overblown, but Guanabara Bay, the site of many open-water events, is apparently an actual cesspool—have the potential to make the world’s greatest athletes experience something less than the world’s greatest time. The entire Australian team initially refused to move into the Olympic Village due to its shanty-town-ness; they eventually relented but soon had to evacuate due to a garbage fire. While the athletes were outside, as ESPN reported, a sneaky thief stole “some shirts and a couple of laptops” from the team’s empty rooms.

Cesspools, Zika, trash fires, and cat burglars: Rio may well make the world long for the stray dogs of Sochi. This is the International Olympic Committee’s fault, not Brazil’s. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect a country with far bigger problems to put on a spectacular, mistake-free show. The IOC’s research into Rio’s bid for the 2016 Games apparently consisted of listening to “The Girl From Ipanema” while enjoying a few rounds of caipirinhas. Now, it’s too late for do-overs, and even should-be Rio boosters are covered in flopsweat. In June, the acting governor of Rio de Janeiro admitted that “if some steps are not taken, [the Olympics] can be a big failure.” Unless those steps include “not holding the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,” some sort of embarrassing catastrophe is almost guaranteed.

Anyway, point is: A reasonable person has every reason to ignore the Rio Games in favor of more reputable entertainments like cockfighting and snuff films. But I am not reasonable when it comes to the Olympics. I love the Olympics despite the corruption and nonsense surrounding its production. There is no grace without sin, after all. Let’s just accept that every major sporting entity is corrupt in its own way, with the possible exception of the International Hopscotch Federation. It is possible to love the player while hating the game, as noted sports commentator Ice-T put it, and there are a lot of players to love at this—and every—Olympics.

With rare exception, every participant in every Olympic sport has spent the past four years training for their events. Most of these athletes aren’t medal contenders, and most of the sports at the games aren’t marquee sports. That’s what I love about the Olympics: More than any other major sporting event, they celebrate the virtues of effort and participation. While the opening and closing ceremonies often embody a sort of cloying Potemkin internationalism, I still find meaningful symbolism in the traditional parade of nations—in the way it asserts that while there will be only a few victors, everyone there is on the same footing. The games celebrate that simply making it to the highest levels of your sport is a huge accomplishment.

Over the next two weeks, I will cheer for Usain Bolt and Michalis Kalomiris, a Greek lawyer and amateur runner who did not realize he had qualified for the Olympics until he read the news on a website in May. Michael Phelps will be in Rio, and so will American trampolinist Logan Dooley, who works as a part-time coach, enjoys the movie Hook, and told NBC that he “can’t wait for the day that monkeys and elephants will be legal to own in the state of California.” The superstars bring in the ratings: The random participants give the games its heart. And all of the athletes, famous or obscure, can offer spectators something to admire and applaud.

Excellence in sport transcends nationality: If you can run really fast and/or far, jump really high and/or long, or propel a ball and/or disc across great distances, you will be celebrated everywhere you go. Thousands of years ago, our Peloponnesian predecessors competed in similar running, jumping, and heaving competitions. The modern Olympics began more than a century ago with the notion that Hellenistic values might save the world; they were an odd French aristocrat’s bid to promote “the cause of internationalism, pacifism and peace amongst nations,” as Olympic historian David Goldblatt put it in his new book The Games. These ideals did not set in, and today the self-satisfied pageantry of Olympism can read as empty huff-puffery. As Goldblatt writes, there is no evidence “that the core of [Pierre de] Coubertin’s ideals will ever be anything other than set dressing again.”

The games aren’t going to save the world, and one can argue they might even make the world worse. And yet, every two years, I shelve my cynicism for two weeks and marvel at the things humans can do with their bodies if they train really hard and seek illicit pharmaceutical assistance.

Rio will be no different. Phelps will swim really fast. Bolt will run really fast. Some random gymnast will thrill me with her agility; some random archer will thrill me with his unerring precision. I will get chills during the parade of nations. I will be moved by the palpable pride and excitement evinced by the athletes who, outcomes notwithstanding, have made it by becoming Olympians. And, my God, that still means something to me. Olympism, like Guanabara Bay, is a roiling repository of fermented rubbish—but I’m still going to drink the water. Though I’ll probably get sick later, for the present moment it has slaked my thirst. The Olympics are here. I cannot wait.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.