tokyo olympics

Athletes Aren’t the Ones Injecting Politics Into These Olympics

USWNT teammates rush to congratulate Megan Rapinoe and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher after a shootout victory over Netherlands in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Womens Football Quarterfinal on Friday at International Stadium Yokohama. Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When Megan Rapinoe, a human being I admire so much that she sits in bobblehead form in the background of most of my Zoom calls, knocked home a penalty shot to defeat the Netherlands and advance the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team to the medal round at the Tokyo Olympics on Friday morning, I cheered and pumped my fist and did all the things you’re supposed to do when a team you are rooting for wins a game. It was an awesome sports moment.

And then I breathed a sigh of relief, because the USWNT making it to the medal round and avoiding an early upset saved me, and you, from so, so many terrible people saying terrible things. This is what it feels like to enjoy anything in the year 2021: a brief moment of bliss before remembering all the shitheads out there.

There may be no group of athletes that consistently gets under the skin of the conservative media complainers than the USWNT. The Daily Wire, which at least theoretically is a United States–based publication, gleefully mocked the United States team when they lost their first match of this tournament, noting that they were “kneeling for BLM at Olympic opener,” as if they lost because their knees were sore or something. The Federalist has decried their “rude celebrations.” A commentator on Newsmax said
that the USWNT’s push for equal pay was “antithetical to our founding documents.” One of the things that is supposed to be fun about the Olympics is that it’s an event for (essentially) harmless national pride, where you can cheer for the greatest athletes that this flawed-but-still-ours country is capable of producing. But sometimes it feels like the USWNT team has more haters inside our borders than outside of them.

It’s not limited to the USWNT, though they are the ones, specifically Rapinoe, who work up the most right-wing bile. The New York Post’s Phil Mushnick wrote a column Thursday night that seemed to blast the USA women’s basketball team for standing for the national anthem, claiming they were “fabricating token pride,” in the very same column he said it was difficult to cheer for them. A Newsmax host was explicit about saying he was happy that the Team USA men’s basketball team lost to France — a Newsmax host cheering for France! — that “the collection of whiny overpaid social justice warriors are very hard to root for” and that “somebody ought to go up to them and just rip USA off their chest.” And, of course, Simone Biles’s withdrawal from the Olympics has been a fainting-couch bad-faith pentathlon all to itself, with Charlie Kirk taking home the gold by calling Biles a “sociopath.” And these are supposed to the patriotic ones! The ones cheering against the Americans!

As many have pointed out, this is all performative, with the same commentators pushing their endless outrage war by incorporating whatever we all happen to be watching at that particular moment, in this case the Olympics. But what’s particularly irritating about it is that these are the very same people who have been so insistent for so many years now that politics be removed from sports entirely. Clay Travis, the sports huckster turned Limbaugh radio replacement, claimed two years ago to have founded his site Outkick explicitly because he wanted to “stick to sports,” and that anyone who tried to bring politics into sports was destined for financial failure; now he’s among those claiming the USWNT lost their first game because they were kneeling for the national anthem. The same people who can’t stop yammering about politics when the rest of us are just trying to watch the Olympics and root for our country’s athletes are the ones who have been yelling at us for dragging politics into it.

This is happening, too, during an Olympics that has so far been, somewhat surprisingly, relatively apolitical. The USWNT has kneeled during the anthem like they have at all their matches for years, but, so far, there have been no active protests, no turning away on the medal stand, nothing like that at all. This could all still change, of course: There is still a week-plus left of the Olympics, and Team USA track-and-field athletes, in particular, have been outspoken about social justice issues in the past. But otherwise, you could argue these have been among the least political Games in years to this point. One would think this would be what anti-politicized-sports pundits have wanted all along: athletes just performing at incredible levels and doing their best to win gold and represent their country. But now it’s their critics who keep bringing up politics, while the rest of us have just been enjoying these Games and the otherworldly athletic achievements within. It is almost as if none of this was, in fact, about on-field politics at all.

Athletes Aren’t Injecting the Politics Into This Olympics