Should we boycott watching the Olympics?

Jane Reddington

Sounder Staff

Tuesday, August 16 2016

I love the swimming and the gymnastics and 42 different sport disciplines. It’s Olympics time, when we all watch with awe and admiration as athletes gather from around the globe to show their best to the world in their given sports. Yet this Olympics is different, because it’s not just about watching great competition. But at the same time it is, because it’s on tv all the time and my kids know it and they love when this show comes to town.

Watching the backstroke, the butterfly and the free style swimming my kids and I are smitten. “How do they do it?” My children ask. “How old were they when they started?” My daughter watches the uneven bars in gymnastics as one athlete’s hands slip off the bar during her routine and she falls to the mat. She is a Canadian and we are all sorry for her.

The Olympics, despite the Zika virus, despite all the controversy around Rio, Brazil, hosting the event, and articles I’ve read of raw sewage in the water because sewage is not collected or treated, I still want my kids to experience the Olympics. I am torn.

I’ve also read that low income families were evicted from their homes to build the Olympic sites and this has understandably led to social tensions. Not to mention that the country is in its worst recession since the 1930s. And then there is the street crime and risk to public security. Reports have crime at its highest levels since 1991. Yet still the athletes have come. Friends of mine are boycotting the event and I can see why. I don’t remember a host city ever having to cope with so many social issues while the spotlight of the world shines on their city for two weeks. 

So do we boycott too? Perhaps, but does that help anything at all? This time, there are so many empty seats, but the smiles are the same. There is Penny Oleksiak, winning a silver medal in the 100-metre butterfly, a Canadian, who at 16 years of age admits she is a child herself, yet her raw talent and ability shines. At the end of her race, she stops coming up for air and powers through to the end. “Closing,” they call it.

Our chests fill with pride, as they call her the future of the sport. She couldn’t be nicer, having just won the bronze in the relay the night before, she is truly the epitome of what it means to be Canadian. Humble, and such a model for my children of what can be accomplished even as a teenager at the Olympics.

Then there is the return of 31 year old Michael Phelps, the “Baltimore bulle.” There are no empty seats for his return to the pool. The tremendous talent that has gathered in Rio, rivals certainly, the athletes from my young life. 

I remember Mary Lou Retton in gymnastics, in 1984. She was a revelation as Simone Biles is now. Then there was the infamous sprinter Ben Johnson in 1988 who was disqualified for doping. None of us could believe it. We watched too, as American Greg Louganis hit his head on the diving board and yet still managed to take home gold. On Sunday, August 7, 2016, Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten crashed head-first and wound up in intensive care with three cracks to her spine. These athletes risk so much in pursuit of a new world record and a place on the podium.

I want to share the Olympics with my children because these athletes are the best in the world. They practice day and night and then even after they have married and had children, they come back to compete because they can, and perhaps because winning a medal means as much as it ever did. 

But this time is different because Brazilians are suffering and the world knows it. What can we do to help? Sadly, I think not much. So do we turn away because there is injustice and suffering living in the shadow of the Olympic Games? Perhaps talking about it is a start. Knowing that drinking water is not a given, a roof over our heads makes us lucky, and especially here on this island, there is not much we could want for, and in Canada no less. We are the lucky ones to be spectators, to have that luxury, if we choose it.