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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
This year's Olympics and Paralympics are taking place in a swirl of controversies, some chronic and some acute. COVID, mental health, support for athletes with disabilities, racism, doping and sexual violence have all become intertwined with these games.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
At the same time, the competition has, as always, provided moments to be excited for athletes, impressed by the skills they've spent so much time building, and thrilled for their successes. I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about the Tokyo Summer Olympics on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
Welcome back. Joining us is Daisy Rosario. She's an executive producer at Stitcher with the show "Celebrity Book Club With Chelsea Devantez." It's in its first season right now. Hey, Daisy. Welcome back.
DAISY ROSARIO: Hey. Thanks for having me. I'm an Olympic junkie.
HOLMES: Also with us is NPR producer Mallory Yu. Hey, Mallory. Welcome back.
MALLORY YU, BYLINE: Hey, Linda. Thanks for having me.
HOLMES: So to say there is a lot going on this summer is an understatement. Let's start by laying out some basics. These Olympics were originally scheduled for last summer. They were delayed a year by COVID. There was, you know, a lot of controversy about whether they actually should go ahead with them.
Athletes who had been heavily promoted in the runup to these games exited early. USA sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson was forced to withdraw before the Olympics even started after testing positive for marijuana. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who's been under a microscope after withdrawing from two Grand Slams to care for her mental health, lost early on. And maybe the most hyped athlete of the summer, the great gymnast Simone Biles, missed most of her events after she unexpectedly became unable to complete her skill safely. Paralympic swimmer Becca Meyers, who won three gold medals in Rio five years ago, withdrew after being denied the opportunity under COVID protocols to bring her mother to assist her in navigating the games as a deaf, blind athlete. And three members of the U.S. fencing team wore pink masks to protest the presence of a teammate who has been accused of sexual misconduct and who successfully appealed his suspension.
But at the same time, USA gymnast Suni Lee became the first Hmong American Olympian and won gold in the women's all-around. World records have been broken. A runner fell and still rallied to win her heat - that was great to watch. Two athletes decided to share a gold medal in the men's high jump rather than have a jump-off - one of the best things I've ever seen.
So if you like the genuinely great parts of the Olympics, there has certainly been plenty for you to watch already. We are recording this on Monday, August 2. There are still a bunch of days left. Anything could happen. I'm sure by the time you hear it, there will be more exciting stories. I know I said a mouthful there, Daisy. But I want to ask you, are you watching these games, and how have you been feeling about them?
ROSARIO: Oh, man. I've been watching them. I can't help but watch them. But I mean, how do I feel about them? I feel just as conflicted as I think anybody, including a lot of the athletes that have expressed, you know, feeling odd about the whole situation. You know, the pandemic - it's real, and we are all dealing with it as best we can. I think for me, what it came down to, though, is the Olympics themselves. Like, you can have so many issues with the organizing structure and the system and everything, but these are still deeply obscure sports, a lot of them. And a lot of these athletes are not people that actually do get to make a living doing this year-round, even, necessarily.
HOLMES: Absolutely not.
ROSARIO: I don't know if this commercial is still there, but there kind of famously was a Home Depot commercial that would run every Olympics, where Home Depot would say things like, we are proud to be the employer that employs the most Olympic athletes, right?
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Home Depot is proud to employ more Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls than any other company in the world.
ROSARIO: These are people that are working retail jobs, for a lot of them, to make ends meet. So am I watching it? Yes, I do - again, like you said at the start, I want to acknowledge all of those things. But my enthusiasm definitely comes from trying to support the actual athletes themselves, who are doing something amazing. It really did make me think about "The Good Place" - like, the show "The Good Place." I was like, I can keep trying to make good choices, and ultimately, like, you're still hurting somebody. And so I'm watching it with the intention of supporting the athletes individually as best as I can, but yeah, let's acknowledge that this overall has been really difficult for everyone involved.
HOLMES: Yeah, absolutely. Mallory, how about you?
YU: You know, I think Daisy summed it up pretty perfectly. I am watching the Olympics because I'm an Olympics junkie. I've watched them since I was, like, 3 years old, right? One of my first memories is being excited about Kristi Yamaguchi winning gold in '92. That being said, Linda, your intro really does capture a lot of the weird feelings that we have.
I think watching the games themselves is really hard because on the one hand, I love watching the Olympics. They're thrilling. I love watching gymnasts 'cause I can't even do a cartwheel to save my own life. I love watching track and field events because I can't run and won't ever clear a track hurdle. And also, you know, it's just really exciting to see athletes like Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who won the Philippines' first Olympic gold. As a Pinoy, my heart is bursting with pride, and I have to shout that out.
That being said, I'm still thinking about the larger context of, you know, what is happening not just in the host country but in the host city. You know, aside from how surreal it is to see how empty the stands are and to hear how empty everything is, I can't help but think about how so few people around the world are still unvaccinated, how COVID is such a big presence in the world still, how the Olympics seem to be kind of trying to smooth over that fact.
And it casts a pall for me personally to think about not just the athletes and the coaches that we're putting at risk, but the whole huge infrastructure of the Olympics Games themselves - like, all the volunteers and people who are cleaning Olympic Village. I'm just trying to support the athletes, like Daisy said, while also in the back of my head still worrying about everything that's happening.
HOLMES: Yeah. And, you know, to me, the most worrying and kind of significant statistic was the information that was coming out in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, which said the great majority of people who actually live in Tokyo did not want them to go forward. And in fact, they have had, you know, increasing - obviously - increasing cases in Tokyo during this time. And it's very difficult, I think, to overlook the idea that, you know, whatever anybody else thinks, it's ultimately the host country and city that is going to see the greatest effects from suddenly bringing a bunch of people.
You know, regardless of the fact that they don't have spectators - like, regular spectators - you're still bringing a lot of people into the city from a lot of different places. And it has indeed seemed to drive an increase in cases, and that's very painful. There are so many reasons why this is so difficult and complex. Stephen, are you watching?
THOMPSON: Yeah, I have been watching kind of as much as my schedule will allow. In the mornings, I'll tune in, and then I'll kind of watch the NBC wrap-up, which is, you know, its own animal. And it's weird. I went into these Olympics feeling extremely ambivalent for all the reasons that you guys mentioned - was outraged, you know, by some of the hypocrisies of the Olympic Committee, some of the decision-making around athletes who were and weren't allowed to compete, you know, and really came into this feeling very frustrated.
But then kind of the instant the games kick in, you suddenly start feeling the triumphs and pains of these athletes. And, man, I can go from zero to inspired really, really quickly. I was saying before we started taping, like, that I have this amazing ability to get extremely emotionally wrapped up in the Olympics and then completely forget them the second they're over. And then, like, each Olympics rolls around, and I'm like a newborn baby. I remember nothing and cry constantly.
THOMPSON: So, you know...
HOLMES: You are like a newborn baby.
THOMPSON: During, like, those - the, like, NBC wrap-ups each night, the number of times that Toyota airs these commercials with the Paralympian Jessica Long and - you know, and her struggle and her relationship with her parents...
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JESSICA LONG: It might not be easy, but it'll be amazing.
THOMPSON: And I just weep every time, and it's like, come on. It's a Toyota commercial. They've aired it, like, a thousand times, and I cry every time.
THOMPSON: So I get really swept up in the emotions, but I do find myself really rooting for the athletes. And I appreciate that everyone has said rooting for the athletes, not necessarily, like, rooting for Team U.S.A., though I do. But I find it impossible to root against athletes...
THOMPSON: ...In the Olympics.
THOMPSON: So I do wind up feeling this real swell of, like, feeling like a world citizen. And I had the exact same reaction, by the way, that you guys did to the high jumpers, Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar, when they tied in the high jump and just decided instead of having a jump-off that they would just each get a gold medal. And then they're just running around, hugging each other and crying and celebrating and whooping, and I thought, gosh.
YU: That moment was so good.
THOMPSON: It is glorious to experience as a viewer. And so I definitely went into these games and continue to go through these games with a lot of ambivalence. And at the same time, man, I'm just such a sucker for it.
HOLMES: And these guys, I think, you know, as I understand it, know each other, have competed against each other before, have had a relationship - sort of competitors and also coworkers in a way.
ROSARIO: Well, they both had suffered serious injuries over the last couple of years...
HOLMES: Yes, yes.
ROSARIO: ...And then did some training together during rehab. And you have got to look this one up because...
HOLMES: It's true.
ROSARIO: ...They also are just so excited. And it's like, you know, the Italian high jumper is, you know, reacting so physically, and then...
ROSARIO: The athlete from Qatar - he just has this very cool look because...
ROSARIO: ...He's got these sunglasses he's been wearing the whole time.
HOLMES: And he also has that look of like, oh, this guy, man. I love this guy.
ROSARIO: Oh, this guy, yeah - like, these two, like, goofy friends, right? And so it's just...
ROSARIO: It's a lovely moment. Please look that one up, you guys.
HOLMES: It is amazing. And, you know, I so agree with what Daisy said about kind of "The Good Place" comparison and how you sort of have that feeling of, like, there's no ethical consumption under capitalism and all that kind of way of looking at it, where whatever individual decision that you make, you're still contributing to a system that is incredibly troubled.
And I think to me, one of the things that I really recommend to people who want to try to get kind of a 20,000-foot view of that - there's an HBO documentary called "The Weight Of Gold," which is specifically about the mental health challenges of Olympians, particularly former Olympians. But it also gets heavily into how small those training stipends are, how many of these athletes are broke...
ROSARIO: Oh, wow.
HOLMES: ...How many of these athletes have essentially no financial benefit and, in fact, incur incredible debt participating in the Olympics. They feel these enormous pressures. I will give you a content warning for issues involving suicide and other mental health things in that documentary. But at the same time, it is a good view of how much pressure there is.
You know, people have been so bothered by sort of the splintering of Olympic coverage, and it can be so difficult to figure out how to navigate the streaming options, and they change it every time, and at least it's not the Triplecast anymore. But what I have been using is the NBC Sports app on my Apple TV. And when you use that, you can watch a lot of things live, but you don't get U.S. commentators on a lot of them.
HOLMES: You'll get Australian commentators. You'll get British commentators - basically, anybody who is English-speaking. Watching a taekwondo match that was called by a Scottish commentator I had never heard before is, like, one of the things I really love about watching it this way. You know, you cannot avoid participating in the machinery of it. But it has helped me not participate in the most nationalist parts of the machinery of it, 'cause those commentators - people in other places do not think of the Olympics as the United States and everybody else...
HOLMES: ...The way that NBC does.
HOLMES: They will tell you the same amount of background about other athletes. Some of them, you know, obviously highlight their own country's athletes, these commentators.
HOLMES: But - I know, right?
HOLMES: They'll explain to you which of the people are really good and why.
HOLMES: That is fun to me, much more than watching a bunch of those kind of schmaltzy (ph) NBC profiles.
HOLMES: My favorite moment in Olympic commentary was the guy who at the beginning of a taped piece - this was not spontaneous commentary - he said at the Olympics, there are the people we will always remember, and there are the people we can never forget. I was like...
HOLMES: That is the same thing, you goober. What are you talking about?
THOMPSON: Also, I am living proof that that's not true.
ROSARIO: Oh, my God.
HOLMES: They made no effort to talk about this. All it was was, and here's a competitor whose father is a sportswriter, so her father is here.
ROSARIO: Oh, my goodness.
HOLMES: And so she gets to have her dad around. And it was like - it had nothing to do with this ridiculous intro. So staying out of that stuff...
HOLMES: ...Has made my Olympics way better.
YU: Yeah. You know, Linda, you say that, and it sort of jogs something that I've been thinking about, which is there are so many stories about fathers kind of working with their daughters to train them, whether it's swimming or gymnastics or whatever. And I'm kind of like, where all the moms?
YU: Where are all the mom stories? And I would like to hear some more of those stories.
HOLMES: Well, and the main mom story that I know from this round is, as I mentioned, the Paralympic swimmer, Becca Meyers, whose mother was - you know, she asked to have her mother be able to come to be assistive in navigating, and she was turned down. So it's like, if your dad is your coach in your sport, then you can have your dad there. If your dad is a sportswriter, you can have your dad there. But if your mom is the person who can help you be safe and efficient navigating the place where you are, that's not OK because of COVID. And that does not make a lot of sense to me.
ROSARIO: But this is something that's also - it's, like, a different thing that I have with the coverage that is bothering me. It's actually a running joke among my friends that every two years I will just go on a diatribe about how much I hate NBC's coverage. Some of the sports, they simply don't explain very much.
THOMPSON: I have found that that is often the case in just about any judged event. When it is a panel of judges trying to sort out who is best, I really need somebody to walk me through 'cause I will have the experience - particularly watching things like synchronized diving, I'm watching at home, and I go, holy crap, that's amazing. And then the announcers just go, oh, that's just a crushingly disappointing result.
THOMPSON: And there's no explanation for, like, OK, they were supposed to twist three times. I just watched two identical people do the identical thing at an identical time.
THOMPSON: It's unbelievable. I just watched magic. I'm always frustrated by the judged stuff.
YU: In that vein, I wanted to shout out another new event, the BMX freestyle, because that has become my personal favorite event this year. I thought the commentary was really helpful, and it did actually teach me a lot about the sport. The commentators would say things like that was an old trick. That's a classic trick that older BMX riders use and has fallen out of favor because it's, like, this complicated to do and really explaining the amount of effort that it takes for a one-minute run and how much energy that that takes, how impressive these tricks are. And watching it, I feel like I started being able to pick out, oh, they did that trick really well, so they're going to get a good score.
YU: I loved watching all the women compete. You know, you should look up Charlotte Worthington's gold medal run because it's definitely worth a watch. I was, like, jumping up and down, and I hardly ever do that. And I really appreciated how the announcers managed to talk about competitors' ages without sounding like, whoa, a baby is competing against an old hag, like some other sports commentators tend to do.
THOMPSON: Katie Ledecky is a dusty old bag of 24.
YU: Like, how could a 29-year-old compete against a 16-year-old? It's just kind of like, I wish that there was a way to talk about ages without being like, wow, 29 - what are they doing at the Olympics?
ROSARIO: The gymnastics team, I would say, is one of the broadcast teams that does a pretty decent job, and that's probably in part because gymnastics is so popular and probably the highest-rated event at the Summer Olympics, you know, every time. But I kind of wish everyone would follow their lead a little bit more. They'll explain it. They'll - every once in a while, if they don't want to interrupt the actual routine itself, they might go, hmm (ph). You know, and then they'll explain.
ROSARIO: And they'll be like, OK, so, you know, here's why this was an issue. They'll tell you why.
ROSARIO: They'll also pause and sometimes let you watch it without the constant commentary.
HOLMES: Yeah, I appreciate that also, in the sense that I have learned how to look up what I need to know. I've watched a bunch of fencing. And first of all, when they say it's going to be a team fencing event, I want the whole team...
HOLMES: ...To run at the whole other team and everybody to start, like, fencing. That's my vision.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I want an action movie, man.
HOLMES: Anyway, when I was watching the fencing, there are a bunch of different fencing events. They all look basically the same to me because I am ignorant of fencing. With judo, I can look it up and be like, OK, I basically get how this goes. With fencing, I looked it up, and I was like, I'm never going to figure this out.
HOLMES: They were saying, you know, then there's the advance, and when the attack stops, the right of way changes. And I was like, I'm never going to be able to catch up with this at all. So I just watched some, and I was like, they both seem very graceful to me. But I do encourage everybody to check out some events you've never watched before if you have access to them 'cause it is sort of cool.
THOMPSON: And I want to throw out one more programming note, which is - we've mentioned a couple of times the Paralympics. The Paralympics don't begin until August 24. They run until September 5. They're also in Tokyo, but they don't start until a couple of weeks after the Olympics are over. And it's very easy to think when these things are over, like, well, that was the Olympics. There is a whole nother Olympics happening. The motto of the Paralympics is, and I quote, "united by emotion." I am so there.
YU: Oh, my God.
THOMPSON: So (laughter)...
HOLMES: Yeah, I am also planning to make some room in my schedule for the Paralympics, because by the same token, like, I've found it so much fun to watch a little bit of archery and badminton and all that stuff.
YU: Beach volleyball.
THOMPSON: Horse prancing.
HOLMES: Horse - I love horse prancing. Horses dance to music in dressage. I'm just saying. And I think by the same token, I'm excited to try some Paralympics. It is safe to say we have not and could not cover everything. I really want to hear what all of you are thinking, how you have navigated these very complicated games to watch. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show, although I'm going to tell you, we could talk for another hour and a half. Thanks to you all for being here so much.
ROSARIO: Thank you.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
YU: Thank you.
HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, subscribe to our newsletter. It's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all tomorrow when we will be talking about - oh, my gosh - "The Suicide Squad."
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