Things are getting worse and worse for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as a spectacle, even beyond the fact that 2020 is long over and they haven’t happened yet. The American viewing public was briefly reminded about, and engaged by, the upcoming games thanks to the sight of the charismatic and telegenic sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson qualifying for the 100-meters—only to then learn that Richardson had tested positive for marijuana, a non-performance-enhancing substance, and would be kicked out of the 100-meter race and left off the 4-x-100 meter relay team.
Now, with the belated start of the Olympics almost at hand, Japan has declared a COVID-19 state of emergency, announcing that the games will have to be held without spectators. Instead of the jam-packed quadrennial gathering of the world, the 2020 [sic] Olympic Games will consist of athletes competing in their obscure sports in empty, silent arenas (or, worse, in empty arenas with garish piped-in sound). Instead of a relief from the constricted realities of the pandemic, Tokyo will be a grim, globally televised continuation of those same realities. Instead of mass excitement and spectacle, the Olympics are likely to offer a spooky sense of loneliness and alienation.
Unless, that is, Sha’Carri Richardson goes ahead and runs the 100-meters. On her own, on a track, in front of a crowd of screaming, vaccinated American fans.
If there’s one thing the pandemic demonstrated—besides the ultimate speciousness and frailty of the social and logistical infrastructure that was supposed to be holding 21st-century civilization together—it’s that you don’t need to physically be in a place to participate in an event. From middle school concerts in living rooms to the state-by-state vignettes of the Democratic National Convention’s roll call, we’ve gotten used to cobbling together what were formerly collective, site-specific activities out of separate, individual contributions. While the rule-bound, weed-free Olympians soberly sprint along the official track, their footsteps echoing off the vacant seats of the Japan National Stadium, Richardson can race against the clock in front of cheering fans in the Superdome, or L.A. Memorial Coliseum, or 100 closed-off meters of the Vegas Strip, livestreamed to TVs, computers, and mobile devices around the globe. It will be as if she were there, only better.
If it’s too strange to see Richardson running down the track by herself, the same broadcast-augmentation technology that gives us projected flags and moving world record markers in the swimming pool can generate copies of the official Olympic sprint field for her to run against. Or let her keep company with three randomly chosen civilians, one Racing President, and the Freeze. Rig up some big electric fans to match the headwind or tailwind in Tokyo, and let her go.
You might say this will make a mockery of the Olympics, to which I respond: How could it? It would simply turn a pious farce into a joyful one. Do the rules say you can’t test positive for marijuana and be an Olympic competitor? Well, the rules also say you shouldn’t try to hold an international sporting event during a still-uncontrolled global disease outbreak, and here we are. Even if Richardson posts the fastest time, surely, the International Olympic Committee would never give an absentee runner a medal. Someone else will stand on a podium and hear their anthem play. Sha’Carri Richardson will have to settle for the roar of the crowd.