In between the superhuman feats of strength and grace, this year’s Olympic athletes are treating us to something equally as delightful (though far less exhausting): their own personalities.
The fascinating and funny tidbits coming out of Tokyo, whether on social media or between events, are endless. If watching the US women’s rugby team is exciting, for instance, then wait until you watch them test out the infamous cardboard beds in the Olympic Village on TikTok. If seeing athletes from different walks of life standing together on a podium sends your heart aflutter, you aren’t ready to see them playing video game darts and chilling together in what amounts to the tallest, most muscular common room gathering you’ve ever seen.
While being an Olympian is an honor on its own, the vast majority aren’t exactly household names. But post a video of yourself getting moon-eyed over Simone Biles, like US diver Tyler Downs did, and people start talking about you. US Rugby player Ilona Maher, who posted the aforementioned bed test, has become an Olympic celebrity in her own right for her posts about “tall foreign demigod lookin athletes” and patriotic bucket hats. Olympians: They’re just like us! Except much faster, stronger, and now, funnier.
To be clear, we the viewing public will love pretty much any cool behind-the-scenes thing Olympians are willing to show us. Yes, we want to follow along on a bike ride with Team Australia! Yes, we want to know what Nigerian basketball player Erica Ogwumike’s daily routine is in the Olympic Village! YES, we want to see UK diver Tom Daly’s hand-knitted (!) medal cozy (!!!) with the British and Japanese flags on it.
The personal stories of Olympic athletes have always been a highlight of the games – otherwise, we might as well watch a marble race or one of those videos where two robots fight each other. But seeing their goofy, bizarre and refreshingly normal selves without the varnish of an edited television package feels special in a completely different way.
Since this year’s games are being held without the backdrop of spectators, that strange feeling of intimacy sometimes stretches all the way to the event floor. Remember when US gymnast McKayla Maroney’s unimpressed face became an immortal meme in 2012? It’s like that, all the time, with side conversations and reactions that would usually blend in to the surrounding din on full display. It’s the little things, like being able to overhear US gymnast Jordan Chiles on a broadcast, during a tense round of competition, bemoan losing a nail. Amid the grit and the drama is so much … normalcy.
Ironically, that just underscores the weirdness, and perhaps anxiety, simmering just beneath these games. After all, a large portion of the Japanese public wasn’t in favor of holding the Olympics this year at all. Athletes have had to withdraw, or not even attend, because of pandemic-related issues. Conversations around stress and mental health reached a new tenor when US gymnastics icon Simone Biles pulled out of multiple events in the first week of competition. We say we want to know more about the Olympic stars who become our long-distance best friends for a few weeks every other year. What we’re discovering is, being an Olympian is hard, for many reasons that have nothing to do with running very fast or throwing things very far.
But despite the politics, the pandemic and the personal challenges, it’s also a lot of fun. And there’s something about seeing Olympic athletes being amused and amazed – by each other, by where they are – that is strangely comforting. Because we’re amazed, too.