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In the run-up to Rio, cynicism about the entire Olympics project feels like a new competitive sport.
There’s no shortage of issues to harp on: the blatant commercialization, the specter of doping, the threat of Zika, the foul waters of Rio, the obscenity of paying billions for a sports carnival in a city that can’t provide basic services to its people.
But there are some great reasons to drop the cynicism and tune in.
There’s the obvious athletic spectacle, the thrill of watching near-superhuman athletes like Usain Bolt, Simone Biles, and Michael Phelps.
But there’s also the gathering of humanity—in all its fragmented, fractious splendor—in one place, with one lighthearted purpose. More than 200 countries will take part, not to hammer out a trade agreement or a ratify a climate accord, but to play games.
This is particularly meaningful in a year when so much is pulling apart. From Europe’s reluctance to accept refugees and the UK’s rejection of Europe, to Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the Mexican border and the rising tension in the South China Sea, 2016 has been a year that’s tested the Olympic ideal of global harmony. And the games will reflect our troubled times with a team made up of refugees.
Sure, it would be naïve to think the Olympics can solve geopolitical rifts. Jesse Owens showed up Hitler in 1936, but it didn’t stop the Nazis from invading Poland. Jimmy Carter threatened to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics unless the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan; the Red Army didn’t budge.
But it’s still worth marveling at the modest miracle the Olympics achieves just by assembling so many warring nations under one banner: Israel and Iran, North and South Korea, Russia and Ukraine. The Olympics are far from perfect, but the world’s better off for having them.—Oliver Staley
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