My relationship with the Olympics runs deep. I grew up in Lake Placid, NY — a dinky, rural, little town upstate that no one would really know except for the fact that we held the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. I learned to skate on the oval where Eric Heiden won 5 gold medals in speed skating. I hung out after school at the arena where the underdog United States beat the USSR in the moment enshrined as the “Miracle on Ice.” My elementary school’s evacuation location was none other than the Olympic Training Center down the road.
As I grew older, the Olympics only started to feel more real. For the past couple years, I have been training as an elite biathlete (cross-country skiing and target-shooting). I’m a far cry from being Olympic caliber, but I have stepped to the starting line to represent the United States numerous times. Many of my competitors, teammates, friends, coaches, and mentors are in China for the Olympics right now, or are leaving soon for the Paralympics. I’ve lived and breathed the strange world of elite sports for years.
However, even as I prepare to watch the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics (the Olympic Opening Ceremony was today) with millions of others, sports will not be the only thing on my mind. The climate crisis may well end up being the death knell of many Winter Olympic sports, (it’s worth nothing that while winter athletes do have a unique perspective on the changes we’re seeing, we all really do know that the loss of winter sports will be the least of our problems), and Beijing is not known for it’s winter conditions. We also can’t have a livable future with climate justice, and China is coming up short in the justice department as well, with an abysmal human rights record. Watching this year’s Games is anything but a carefree experience.
Interrogating the intersections of climate justice and this pop cultural Olympic moment is thorny. The United States is diplomatically boycotting the Games — meaning that we are not sending government officials. However, some believe that we should be going further and having athletes boycott. Others think that this is not effective. While protests might be effective, some think that is not a safe option for athletes in China. I’ve heard some question how athletes can purport to care about climate change, when their sports take massive amounts of energy and travel. Others I know think that we need to be looking for systemic solutions, rather than shaming athletes. It’s often said that the Olympics can bring us together in global community. After recent years’ exposure of blatant nationalism, insane doping scandals, disgusting corruption, wild overspending, and persisting inequality — many rightfully wonder if that can really be the case. Unfortunately, I don’t have answers to these debates.
All I know, all that I can tell you for certain, is that I used to sneer at my hometown’s valorization of the Olympics. Its refusal to move on. The way that walking down a Main Street decked out in 1980 memorabilia can feel like being a washed up high school quarterback, walking the halls, reliving the glory days. I know I don’t feel any of these things anymore. While the Cold War nationalism of 1980’s “Miracle” isn’t my cup of tea, I know now that my town’s legacy is about so much more than geopolitics. Lake Placid may be the town of “Miracle,” but it is also the town of miracles — a town where one has the permission to hope, to dream. And there is nothing silly about that.
So, yes, I have decided to watch this year’s Winter and Paralympic Games to support my friends, but also, to be wowed, to be inspired, to be given the opportunity to believe in the impossibility of axels and 1080s, ski jumpers flying through the air, and cross-country skiers collapsing at the finish line having given more than their all. I will watch, because believing in these miracles is not all that different from believing in a a future where people and planet thrive together. Both are possible — with years of training, dedication, and teamwork. Miracles don’t have to fall out of the sky, we can make them happen.
42 years ago, the announcer in Lake Placid asked, “Do you believe in miracles?” The answer was, and always will be — yes.