Five-ring Circus

Why the Olympics Actually Matter

Forget the pablum about unity and world peace. Just look at Jessie Diggins.

Diggins collapsing at the finish line, leaning forward and crying out
Diggins crosses the finish line to win silver in women’s 30 kilometer mass start cross-country skiing during Winter Olympics, at the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre in Zhangjiakou, China, on Sunday. Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday, in a stadium packed with athletes from around the world, International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach closed out the 2022 Beijing Games with a recitation of all the ways in which they don’t actually matter. “This unifying power of the Olympic Games is stronger than the forces that want to divide us,” said Bach. “You give peace a chance. May the political leaders around the world be inspired by your example of solidarity and peace.”

The athletes in the audience cheered, even though the more perceptive among them surely recognized the emptiness of Bach’s rhetoric. For the entirety of the Winter Games, after all, Russia had been threatening an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and it isn’t going to back down just because Anna Shcherbakova won a gold medal in figure skating. The Games themselves were held in a country that is currently pursuing a policy of what the United States has termed “genocide” against a predominantly Muslim minority group in the Xinjiang region; it is unlikely that the Olympics will end up making life any easier for the Uyghurs.

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The Olympic Games does wield a unifying power, if only in the sense that so much of the world comes together to watch and participate in it. But it’s on days like Sunday, when sporteaucrats speak of transcendence as the world sits poised on the verge of collapse, that the Olympic movement’s empty geopolitical promises feel especially difficult to stomach. The Winter Olympics do not seem to have inspired Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China’s Xi Jinping to peace. If it has inspired them at all, it has likely inspired them to think about what else the world will allow them to get away with.

It hardly even needs saying that no one actually thinks that the Olympics will bring about world peace, not even Thomas Bach. And I’m positive that Bach also does not actually expect that the international community, in the “spirit of Olympic solidarity,” will be so moved by the outcome of the Games that they will “give equal access to vaccines to everybody around the world,” as he said to applause on Sunday. That would be nice, but it’s just not how the world works, and Bach knows that. Naive men do not ascend to the top of the IOC.

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And yet, at every Olympics closing ceremony that I can recall, IOC officials such as Bach have offered similarly lofty speeches about the purported power of the Games to unite the world and, in so doing, to make the world a better place. The sporteaucrats need this narrative, as empty as it is. On a macro level, it is the only way to justify the continued existence of the Games.

The Olympics are one of the most wasteful and frivolous things that humans do. They cost untold billions each cycle and the residents of the cities where they happen generally do not want them. The power of the Olympics is often wielded by autocrats hoping to use them to launder their authoritarian or expansionist ambitions, or by everyday crooks who see them as a vector for personal enrichment.

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At the very beginning of these Winter Games, I wrote about how every Olympics I’ve ever covered has been, in its way, indefensible. The Beijing Games did not buck that trend. Likewise, the rhetoric that world leaders use to justify the Olympics is also mostly indefensible, not to mention consistently inaccurate and broadly self-serving. The Olympics will not save the world. The world is going to destroy itself no matter who wins gold in ice dancing.

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And yet part of me still feels like the Olympics still matter, and I think the best case for why they do was made earlier on Sunday, when cross-country skier Jessie Diggins won America’s final medal of the 2022 Winter Games. If Thomas Bach’s fatuous talk explains why the Olympics should be stuffed into a rocket and shot into the sun, Jessie Diggins’ individual courage shows us why they still mean something despite it all.

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Diggins is my favorite contemporary American Olympic hero. She excels in a sport that Americans dislike and are bad at. As a competitive sport, cross-country skiing just isn’t as popular in the United States as it is in countries where the weather is consistently cold and snowy enough to make cross-country skiing an optimal mode of transit. It’s also unpopular because it is tremendously difficult: like running a marathon, except much more painful, and also you can’t wear shorts. Diggins has said that, when she races, she inevitably enters what she has termed “the pain cave,” a space in her mind that’s been carved out by the combined force of her suffering and her willpower. Americans do not generally want to go into the pain cave! Americans tend to want to pay other people to enter the pain cave for them.

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In 2018, Diggins and teammate Kikkan Randall shocked the world when they combined to win gold in the women’s team sprint event. It was the United States’ first ever Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing, a sport that historically has been dominated by the Nordic countries and Russia. It was also America’s first Olympic cross-country medal, period, since Bill Koch took silver in the men’s 30-kilometer race in 1976. Up until this year, those two medals were the only Olympic cross-country medals that the United States had ever won.

Over her two weeks in Beijing this year, Diggins won two more medals: a silver in the women’s 30-kilometer mass start and a bronze in the women’s sprint. In many ways, though she did not win another gold, her 2022 Games were perhaps even more impressive than her performance in Pyeongchang. She competed in six separate events spanning 15 days, beginning with the 15-kilometer skiathlon on Feb. 5 and finishing with the 30-kilometer mass start on Sunday. She was in the pain cave basically the entire time that she was in Beijing.

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The pain cave was at its deepest on Sunday. To begin with, it was miserably cold—cold enough that, at the conclusion of the men’s race that same day, a Finnish skier had to seek medical attention to treat his frozen penis. (In the immortal words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up.) Diggins had her own special problem to contend with: 30 hours before the race began, she had contracted food poisoning. It was perhaps because of this that her legs started to cramp up after 13 kilometers, forcing her to ski the final 17 kilometers in physical agony. After the race, she said that, when she collapsed across the finish line, she felt like she was going to die.

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And yet Diggins didn’t die, and Diggins didn’t quit, even though you or I, had we been in her skis, would likely have both quit and died. (Cross-country skiing is very hard.) That’s the difference between Olympic heroes and people like you and me: They choose to head straight into the pain cave, again and again. Diggins kept going, and she skied so well that she crossed the finish line less than two minutes after winner Therese Johaug of Norway. Her silver medal was America’s highest-ranking individual cross-country finish since 1976. And it reminded me of the real reason why the Summer and Winter Games might still be worth it.

Diggins jumps in the air, pumps her fist, beaming, clutching her silver medal, in hat and puffy coat
Diggins on the podium at the mass start victory ceremony at the closing ceremony, at the National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest) in Beijing, on Sunday. Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images
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Every two years, the Olympic Games offer us rhetoric and courage. The rhetoric of the Olympics is almost always devoid of any courage. The courage of the Games is found in the individual effort of the participants and teams. The leaders of the International Olympic Committee want to make you believe that the Games matter in ways that they absolutely do not matter: that in and of themselves they carry serious geopolitical import, that they are a powerful force for world peace. And yet the events of the Games offer countless individual examples of why they do matter, insofar as they offer countless examples of individuals pushing their limits in order to test the depth of what’s inside them, walking directly into their own pain caves in order to see how far they go.

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There is something elegant and transcendent and primally human in the image of Jessie Diggins trudging endlessly around a frigid snow circle, with cramping legs, in dick-freezing weather, having just had food poisoning, after already skiing five other races over the course of the Olympics. “I don’t know how I made it to the finish,” she said after the race, and there is something glorious in the fact that she did, and that she even picked up a silver medal in the process. It speaks to something great about the human spirit, or something insane about it, or both. Jessie Diggins won’t get rich off of her 30-kilometer mass start finish. She won’t leverage her Beijing performance into a multimillion-dollar cross-country skiing contract. She did it for no other reason that she decided she wanted to do it, and to test her resolve against a bunch of other maniacs who decided that they wanted to do it, too.

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A little bit before Bach spoke on Sunday, Diggins and the rest of the 30-kilometer mass start medalists got their medals on a podium in the middle of the stadium in front of all of the amassed Olympians across all winter disciplines. The joy on her face almost made me start crying, and not just because after two weeks of nonstop Olympics coverage, I am delirious from lack of sleep. The Olympic Games matter because they give us so many chances to watch people test their physical and mental limits in so many ways, and to admire and maybe even learn from their examples. The Games help us realize that, if Jessie Diggins didn’t collapse, then maybe you and I can summon the strength to keep going—and that maybe, if we just keep pressing forward through our own pain caves, there will ultimately be some reward for us too.

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