Perhaps every athlete secretly went to the Tokyo Olympics worried that they had not adequately prepared for the challenge. I know I did. Would the 13 hour time difference affect my performance? Could I handle the long hours in front of a screen juggling my beer and ice cream?
Fortunately, my months of indoor pandemic training – “Ted Lasso”, “The Last Dance”, “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” – paid off. The rewards over the past two weeks have been innumerable, enjoyable, and often astonishing. Briton Charlotte Worthington landed a 360 degree backflip to win the women’s freestyle BMX. Carissa Moore from Hawaii with the very first gold medal in women surfing. These exuberant high jumpers. Katie Ledecky. Allyson Felix.
For every other organism on earth, competition is a purely Malthusian affair: hunt, hide, grow, spawn, repeat. In the course of evolution, this tension has led to miraculous morphological adjustments. Velvet worms. Ultraviolet flying squirrels. Electroactive bacteria. Monkfish and their companions.
Humans could be the first species for which this kind of competition no longer plays a role. (Of course, only a species with a disproportionately large cerebral cortex would dare to do that.) So we invented the Olympic Games, a showcase of human drive in its purest niche. Canoe slalom. Hammer throw. Trampoline gymnastics. Table tennis. There are also meta-competitions: new sports emerge, more boring ones (croquet, anyone?) Die out.
It is fair to ask whether such a species might not invent an even more noble competing product and broadcast it on television. “What if nations competed for the best maternal mortality reduction programs?” Asked novelist Joyce Hackett on Facebook. “Competitive literacy rates! Countries with the most new readers reach the finals, and then former illiterates declare their country’s greatest poets to win. “
In less than a year – a record pace – we developed not one but several vaccines against the deadliest virus in a century. But we’re still struggling to convince enough people to take it, even as the virus is spewing out new varieties of itself – alpha, beta, delta – as if it were for a Greek competition of their own. We assume we’re done with the old school competition, but we’re not done yet.
Some observers are already wondering whether the Olympic Games as a company have taken their course. The extreme heat and humidity in Tokyo challenged athletes – climbers, swimmers, runners, tennis players. (Belgium’s field hockey team prepared for the conditions by training in a thermal chamber, and the Olympic marathon is 500 cooler miles away.) A 2016 study in The Lancet found that global warming will severely limit future summer games . Winter sports enthusiasts are increasingly restricted as to where they can train. Our competitiveness can literally and figuratively take us out of the competitive business.
Aug 7, 2021, 8:13 a.m. ET
This will make for a daunting viewing, let alone a daunting life experience on earth. How will we enjoy ourselves when the wonders of human sport and nature begin to dry up? Marble races maybe. Athletics in the kitchen. Undoubtedly, one way or another, for better or for worse, we will always have curling.