Sitting on the floor of my childhood home with my dad watching the 2004 U.S. women's gymnastics team cinch the silver medal in Athens, I thought I'd found heaven. Here he was, at home with me, and we were bonding over contorting 12-year-olds with glitter scrunchies. My mom was in the kitchen cooking chili and she'd howl with delight every time one of these leotard-ed pre-pubescents landed on their feet instead of their faces. Having us all there together — I loved every minute of it.
All of us can remember a time like this when the Olympics meant something special. It was something we could all get behind; something that bonded us and made our parents stay home and the bar crowds more lively and the sports we'd play more interesting. And if you didn't have close friends or relatives to share the moments with, it didn't matter because during the weeks the Olympics spanned, you had your country. No matter who you were or where you lived, the pervasive feeling the games created was one of nationalism; that we were all in this together.
But this year at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, things are different. Instead of its historical role as a global unifier, the Olympics is wrecking havoc, creating chaos, and destroying the communities it promised to enrich. Amidst the backdrop of increasing terrorism, racism, and general injustice across the planet, it seems these doomed Olympics have taken on a certain malignant quality, one's that as difficult to watch as it is difficult to unite around.
After all, it's hard to get behind an event that's displaced 80,000 people from their homes in order to create an Olympic Village; one that forces its elite athletes to compete in raw sewage water that health experts guarantee will infect them; one that's viewed as so distasteful to locals that drug dealers have begun selling bags of cocaine with the Olympic logo branded on the little bags. Meanwhile, the construction and infrastructure the Olympics require has sunk Brazil into its deepest recession in decades, Rio’s governor has declared a “state of public calamity” last month because his administration has run out of money to pay for public security and healthcare, and Rio's cops and firemen have taken to camping out at the international airport, holding banners that read “Welcome to Hell.”
Oh, and Zika. It's hard to cry nationalistic pride tears of red, white and blue when you've got Zika.
Things in Rio aren't bad for everyone, however. If you're rich and in Rio, the Olympics are your jackpot.
As The Atlantic reports, "Contracts for everything from stadium and train-line construction to port renovations have funneled billions of dollars in taxpayer-subsidized revenues to a minute handful of Brazil’s most powerful, well-connected families and their companies. This disconnect—between populist promise and the uneven benefits that followed—is emblematic of the failed Olympic ambition to remake Rio, and a slew of questionable priorities that have brought Brazil to its knees."
At its core, the Olympics is about sports, competition and patriotism, but given what's happened in Rio, it's so clearly become about capitalism. At a total cost of $12 billion, the Rio Olympics are among the priciest in history. Although the Brazilian government insisted much of this money was put up by private investors, outside researchers have determined that a huge chunk of those billions are from tax breaks, government loans and land transfers, all things that are systematically bankrupting Rio's people and public services.
But all that power imbalance, disease and social strife is below the equator. What does that have to do with us? After all, the United States is an individualistic country, a place full of people who ask, "How does this affect me? What do I get out of this?"
What we would get out of it as American observers to this chaos is this: were it not for the rampant corruption and injustice in Rio, the 2016 Olympics would have been a solid break from the waves upon waves of terrible shit that's been happening here. Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, the election, Brock Turner, North Carolina's bathroom bills … all these horrific events are things that we as a country need a mental break from; some sort of diversion that give us something to look forward to, to root for.
But we can't, in good conscience, feel hope about an event like the Rio Olympics that's systematically disabling Rio's society in every way from health to housing.
So, here's why you shouldn't care that the Olympics are this week: the less people that buy into the corruption and injustice that the Olympics bring, the more the International Olympic Committee will be forced toward reform. Reform would be good. Reform would mean that the safety of the athletes and the well-being of the communities they compete in are prioritized above anything else. Reform would mean that the money raised from the Olympic games is utilized wisely so it does more than line the pockets of the already uber-rich. And closer to home, Olympic reform would mean the world would have a beautiful, uniting sporting event steeped in history to look forward to; to distract them from the struggle and pain of daily life in modern times. Because that's really, really what we need right now — to be reminded of the sorts of positive inspirational stories of triumph and passion the Olympics bring so that we don't forget there's still some good left in this world.
In any other past Olympics (except maybe Sochi, which was also a shit show), you could support your country's athlete's by tuning in and watching them perform. But this year, in the shambled state the Olympics are in, it's almost more beneficial to do the opposite; stay away. Because the more viewers the Olympic games have, the more money goes into the pockets of the corrupt committee that plans them and the more we broadcast the message that it's okay to disregard athlete's health and displace locals and bankrupt social services. After all, if people are watching, doesn't it make up for all that?
There's something undeniably beautiful and tantalizing about the level of training and athleticism Olympians have, simply because it could be all for not — if you don't medal, you have to wait another four years for another chance, assuming you're not too old by then. It's a phenomenal risk for a highly unlikely reward. But given what the games have become, it's almost like watching the Olympics follows the same path its athletes to do tentative glory: risky, a lot of work, and a very low potential for reward.
So, since it's hard to unite as a country around the excitement of the Rio Olympics like we have with past Olympic games, something we can unite about is pushing the people who run it to do better by tuning them out. Because when they start improving, we all benefit from feeling like a family again.