WILL NEXT YEAR'S OLYMPICS HELP AMERICANS GET ALONG WITH EACH OTHER FOR A CHANGE?
ONE YEAR FROM now, the flame will be lit in Tokyo, the XXXII Olympic Summer Games will begin, and Americans will set aside their differences for at least 30 seconds before pushing each other into the fire. This is where we are, America. We have a year to decide if it's where we want to be.
The Olympics, to some degree, are inherently political, and they occasionally become the backdrop for protest, such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos's podium demonstration against racism in 1968. But nowadays nobody sticks to sports anymore, it seems, and so the event that used to (more or less) unite us faces an odd challenge. Will American athletes make it political? If they do, will you hold it against them? If they don't, will you hold it against them?
The last Summer Olympics, in Rio in 2016, took place three months before the election of President Donald Trump. Partisan tensions have risen considerably since then, even in sports. The recent Women's World Cup was a prime example: The triumphant Americans are surely more popular among liberals than conservatives. This is not the prism through which we viewed Michael Phelps or Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
The 2020 Olympics could be the ugliest American visit to Tokyo since former President George H.W. Bush vomited in the lap of Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa. Las Vegas sports books should set an over/under of how many American athletes the President will trash in the middle of the Olympics. After all, he frequently targets immigrants, and nearly 50 foreign-born Americans competed for Team USA in '16.
How many athletes will use their visibility to criticize Trump? The U.S. men's basketball coach, Gregg Popovich, has been one of his most vocal critics in sports. Still, athletes do not become the best in the world so they can tell people whether they plan to visit the White House. But that question is fair, and it's coming. Let's hope it doesn't overwhelm the event.
The Games always deliver, despite myriad scandals. (Drugs and money are as much a part of the Olympics as the rings.) There will be unpredictable triumphs and heartwarming stories, brutal defeats and affirming acts of sportsmanship.
Simone Biles's performance in 2016 was mesmerizing; what she does in '20, after her courageous admission that she was sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar, will be inspiring, no matter where she finishes.
Katie Ledecky may win so easily that she'll be able to read a book while the other swimmers finish. Noah Lyles will try to become the first American man since Carl Lewis to win the 100- and 200-meter sprints, but teammate Christian Coleman might get in his way, though hopefully not literally.
There will be quirky developments and seemingly random events. The IOC added three-on-three basketball; the favorites are the U.S. team of James Harden, his agent and his personal chef. For the first time, all six fencing team events are on the docket, a relief to all the men's team-saber enthusiasts who were disconsolate watching the Rio Games. Skateboarding could become the summer version of slopestyle skiing—the wildly entertaining sport we didn't know we needed.
Baseball will be back, and while America does not need more televised baseball games, Japanese fans will make the event a spectacle. The return of softball is more welcome. We are indifferent about the addition of karate but do not plan to say that to anybody who competes in karate.
Grammarians will applaud the lack of a hyphen in sport climbing; competitors will climb walls—not another sport. Sport climbing includes three disciplines (speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing, but you knew that), and if it is a hit, the Tough Mudder lobby will be at IOC headquarters with a briefcase of cash.
One small prediction: The most popular new sport will be surfing. It will appeal to surfing experts, climate scientists, attractive-body enthusiasts and fans who pretend to understand the scoring system.
Mostly, though, there will be swimming, and there will be wrestling; there will be track, and there will be field; there will be records set, and there will be tears spilled. The Olympics move us because they are a break from the sports we hear about all year round. We will find out if these Olympics are a break from our divisive political discourse, too.
A LIFE REMEMBERED
FACES IN THE CROWD