Today we are one week away from departure for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Competition starts in eighteen days; and in twenty-two days I will have completed the final race of my career. Rio will be my third Olympic Team after walking on to my college rowing team in 2002 with no knowledge or background in the sport. Rio will be my first trip to South America. My family and friends are planning on being there to support me for my last-ever attempt to make the podium while representing the United States in rowing competition. I will be traveling to Rio as part of one of the most talented and decorated women’s rowing squads in history. I am incredibly excited for this trip, and this opportunity. I have worked for ten years to get to this point and will continue to work as hard as I can over the next few weeks to make the most of this very special and unique opportunity.
But all you want to do is talk about shit in the water.
My request to everyone who is fixated on shit in the water: stop. Stop trying to ruin the Olympics for us.
I can’t be sure when the first headlines about the water quality in Rio appeared and the conversation really started. But ever since then, it seems like it’s all people want to talk about. And I can’t really understand why. At this point, it is known that there are issues with the water quality. It is known that athletes are going to be at risk for illness. It is known that we are going to have to be smart, hygienic and take precautions. Great. Let’s move on.
What purpose does it serve to dwell on this? What benefit can we possibly gain from drilling athletes on their position on the water quality in Rio? None. Or nothing good, anyway. What it seems like to me, is that the media is yet-again working really hard to smear the host city, the IOC, and the Olympics as an institution as part of the hype leading in to the Games. In Beijing, people were hyper-focused on air quality. In London, the criticism fell on budget and timeline issues. This year, it’s more of the same and people seem more motivated than ever to portray the impending Rio Games as the biggest-ever disaster that hasn’t happened yet. Why? Why do we insist on indulging this negativity when there is so much potential for a culture of optimism and positivity in and around the Games? As a culture we have a really simple choice when it comes to how we want to frame the conversation around Rio 2016, and at every turn it seems we are choosing to be jerks.
At a very basic level, the tactics selected by many of the major western media outlets covering the Games are just flat out embarrassing. Everywhere I look, I read negative stories and op eds –and the resulting comment threads…yikes– that express outrage and disgust, disappointment and disapproval of the conditions that short-term visitors like athletes and spectators will be forced to endure for all of two weeks this summer while they participate in the Olympics. They do not mention the countless Brazilian citizens who live their whole lives in Rio and don’t complain; they offer no solutions for their readership to pitch in and help to make things better for the visiting delegations they so pity (let alone long term solutions for the population of Brazil!); all from the comfort of their figurative armchairs, the majority of these great thinkers and contributors having never been a part of the Olympic Movement, or themselves been to Rio. As a culture, could we possibly be more entitled, ignorant, and embarrassingly egocentric?
There are thousands of people who have worked tirelessly for years to put together an event that is unique to anything else in the world. The people of Brazil have opened their country and their hearts to the global community to engage with us during this incredible event that will bring people together from every corner of the earth to celebrate humanity on a truly basic level. And the best we can do, our media can do, is insult them and try to make them feel ashamed of who they are and the work they have done to bring us all together.
This is incredibly frustrating to me. It’s frustrating because I feel only gratitude and appreciation for the nation of Brazil and the city of Rio de Janeiro for taking on this now thankless task of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. I want other people to share this feeling of humility and privilege that I feel being a part of the US Olympic Team. I want people to understand that no one and nothing is perfect; not in sport, not in life; and that Brazil is doing the best they can to make sure everyone has a fantastic time when they come to Rio. I feel these things and know them to be true because I have seen the way a host nation comes alive, and the deep and moving sense of national pride that host staff, volunteers and organizers feel and express when the Games begin. When you are there, and you are a part of it, you cannot help but be changed by the palpable sense of unity and commitment to excellence that exists inside the Olympic bubble. If you can’t recognize that, or -worse- if you do recognize that and still only want to drive messages of national shame on the host nation and/or the hypothetical superiority of your home nation, you just need to stop. Just stop. Because at a certain point, you are just embarrassing. Suggesting that someone is doing a bad job while also implying that you would do a better job but also refusing to offer to do the job, or even to help, is a pretty crappy stance, and sounds a lot like someone who probably doesn’t have any friends.
Speaking of having no friends: where are all the people who going to be supporting us this summer? I think anyone would be hard-pressed to find any Rio coverage that doesn’t have some troll component — even stories that are meant to be positive — the messages of negativity portrayed by the mainstream media have become so pervasive that everyone (i.e. those leaving comments) now feels invited to remind us all the time that Rio is going to host a terrible Olympics and we’re all going to have a bad time. And when the trolls inevitably appear, there is almost never anyone who is willing to take them down and bring the conversation back to center: which is, despite any obstacles, American athletes are going to do everything they can to have their best possible performance in Rio. Period. And the more support we have from our countrywomen/-men, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, the better. I know the positive voices are out there. But that they are silent is really sad.
Think of it this way: every time you sensationalize the poor water quality, or try to get athletes to react to Zika, or chastise the Brazilian people for allowing their government to collapse, you’re not just insulting the Brazilian people. You’re also insulting us, your American athletes. Every time someone asks an athlete who is not a sociologist, epidemiologist, ecologist, microbiologist, or entomologist their position on water quality or some other crappy negative topic, they’re telling us: “I care more about your non-expert opinion on these issues than I do on your performance in Rio.” But –But– No. There is no but. You’re not being helpful, and it’s not coming from a good place. Olympic athletes are experts on one thing, and one thing only: our performance. And you damn well know it. Every time you ask us to shift our focus from our specialty during the one time in a four-year cycle that we get the opportunity to share our expertise with the world, it’s an unnecessary distraction that we as competitors do not need and should not have to deal with from people who are supposed to be on our side. Every time you steer the conversation away from the athletes and competition and on to things that are outside of our control, you’re suggesting to us: “I think you should probably waste some of your energy worrying about this, don’t you?” That’s not helping anyone to be faster or perform better in Rio, so why would you do it? It seems a little mean-spirited and like you don’t care if we do well. Or that you somehow think that we should not enjoy our trip to the Olympics.
And that hurts. Because we are doing this for you, after all. We are American, and we are going to Rio to represent you in this potentially flawed and imperfect setting that you are trying so desperately to get the public to love to hate. We are going to compete for medals to bring them home to you, and for you so that the US has a good shot at winning the medal tally again in Rio. We go to Rio and face incredible odds, some of us, for you so that you will be proud of us, and proud of supporting Team USA. We are supposed to be a Team–all of us–and those of you covering our stories, and those of you resting comfortably in your intellectual armchairs are supposed to have our backs. All of us owe something to our nation for getting us this far, or for believing in us, and competing under our shared colors is our way of expressing our gratitude to you. So tell me again why you want to talk about poop?
If you are that insecure about where we stand, America, let me be the one to say it. I’ll say it, if it will allay your fears and put some of these issues to rest:
I will row through shit for you, America.
And I will do it gladly, and proudly, because rowing on this Team in Rio is not something I’m afraid of, or going to complain about. I will do it, and I will defend fiercely the dignity of the people who are doing their best to make everyone happy while we are all guests in their beautiful country. I will do it, and I will try to discourage you from taking away even the tiniest bit of magic or excitement from a single one of my teammates who have earned this trip with their blood and sweat, and all of whom deserve to have a really positive experience in Rio.
AND LEST WE FORGET: we had our chance to host the Olympics in 2016. Where were all of you critical crusaders then? Chicago needed you!
We wimped out on the Chicago bid and have whined about it ever since, but don’t worry: we will have our chance again in 2024 with the bid in Los Angeles. If you are so desperately concerned for your athletes, and your Team that you need to write snide, lazy things on the internet about Rio or Brazil to make yourself feel better; or if you feel angry or betrayed or frustrated by what’s about to happen in Rio because you genuinely believe the US would do a better job and be the perfect Olympic host, I suggest you channel some of that energy, or at the very least some funds, into the L.A. 2024 bid.
Great! Now that we have that cleared up, get behind us and and cheer your faces off. Put your rally caps on. Let’s pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Let’s go for the gold together. Pick your best cliche that will get you fired up to watch American athletes put their hearts and souls in to their performances in Rio in a few weeks, and when the urge strikes to comment on the poop, just go right ahead and keep it to yourself.
Long Live the Dream,