How to Watch the Rio Olympics: A Guide for Conflicted Viewers

Most Olympic Games are surrounded by controversy, but this year’s Rio Games take the hullabaloo to a whole new level: doping; corruption; Zika; political upheaval; failing infrastructure, the list goes on and on. Steve Magness, whistleblower, coach to elite runners, and outspoken critic of corruption in athletics, is the ultimate skeptic. Brad Stulberg, writer and bold fan of the ideals of excellence in sport, is trying to hold on to his optimism. The two recently discussed if and how a conflicted viewer should watch this year’s game. What follows is their conversation.

Brad: So the Olympics kick off Friday night. I’ve got all sorts of mixed feelings about the games.

Steve: Agree. It’s hard to wrap your head around. In one sense, since I was a kid watching the 1996 Olympics, I’ve been conditioned to be enthralled in the games. I have vivid memories of rooting for each American, no matter what sport. With this Olympics, the bubble is completely burst. I still have those feelings of the joy and enthusiasm for my country, but the other half of my mind knows the truth and is completely, utterly disillusioned with it. It’s like I’m fighting an internal battle of kid me and adult me.

Brad: Agree. Although I was running 10-minute miles when you were probably running 5-minute miles, 9-year-old me also watched the games with dreams of competing. Now, I too feel a bit disillusioned. I mean I want to support my country and cheer for friends who are competing, but at the same time, I don’t want to support an organization(s) that has acted in ways opposite to my basic values.

I mean I don’t even know where to start. There’s how the IOC is handling doping, there’s Rule #40 [which prevents athletes from thanking any corporate sponsor that funded their training] and there’s the general state of affairs in Rio.

Steve: Ya, it’s a one giant mess, but then again, the Olympics always have their ‘mess.’ No one thought Athens would be ready, In Beijing, human rights were (and still are) abysmal, and so on. But Rio. Rio has everything checked off.

We have major doping scandals, corruption, bribery, human rights violations, sewage in the water, structures falling apart. It’s like every single bad thing that has happened to any other Olympics is happening in Rio. For the first time, it seems like the entire system is broken. And since you brought up Rule 40, I think that’s a microcosm of the problem. You have an Olympic committee bringing in BILLIONS of dollars in revenue, you have IOC officials getting $900 a day in per diem, and then you have the athletes, who on average make below the poverty line, and they aren’t even allowed to give a shout out to their sponsors. If 12-year-old me knew that working at McDonalds was financially equivalent to being an Olympian, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to be an Olympian so bad… But that’s the problem, the IOC needs to hold the athletes down. While the IOC treats this like a business for their own employees, they keep up an illusion where athletes and fans are deceived that they are “doing it for their country.” This allows the IOC to keep the money in their hands, and not where it belongs, in the hands of the athletes and those who support them. It’d be one thing if there was no money involved, but since there is, it ought to go to the athletes.

Brad: Glad you’re so excited.

Steve: (Laughing.) Maybe I’ve become a total pessimist? 12-year-old me might hate 30-year-old me…

Brad: Well what to do? I mean the fan in me wishes I didn’t know about any of this. But I do. And like you said, there’s simply too much to overlook. I’m still going to watch the games. I’m just not sure how. Part of me wants the whole thing to be a disaster, which might bring about some real change in how the games are organized, policed, and run. But man, the part of me that has friends competing who have trained their ENTIRE LIVES for this shot, that part of me wants the games to be splendid, doesn’t want their experience to be rained on by all these dark clouds.

Steve: I think there are two options: One, you turn your brain off and go all in. Have you ever seen those documentaries where they show massive cult followings, and they are going nuts singing and dancing and chanting for some crazy idea that the world will end and they’ll be teleported to safety by Zeon the alien who will save them? Those guys are all in. You can see it in their eyes. No piece of evidence will rain on their parade. For me to truly enjoy the Olympics, I think I need to adopt that kind of mindset. The second option, which I’ll probably take, is be disenchanted. I’ll cheer for the athlete I coach and my friends who are competing, but hate that they are competing in a completely corrupt environment. So what I’m saying is, don’t watch the Olympics with me, I’ll be jaded and miserable. Or possibly in a cult.

Brad: What about a middle-ground? A way to hold it all in your head (and heart) with equanimity?

Steve: You have to compartmentalize. If you’re an athlete, you compartmentalize it all. And as a fan, I think the middle ground comes from compartmentalizing it. That’s probably the only way.

Brad: So are you saying root for folks like kick-ass cyclist Megan Gaurnier and middle-distance runner Brenda Martinez, while rooting against every single Russian athlete?

Steve: (Laughing.) Yes. But I think it goes beyond Russia. Maybe I need to put together a list of people not to root for. The key might simply be to root only for those you really feel strongly about. Maybe this general cheering for certain countries or whatever feel-good story NBC puts forward (which I’m sure will include US sprinter Justin Gatlin without mentioning his drug use) is dead. It’s all about rooting for individuals now.

Brad: Is it possible for you to “root for” the good individuals, without “rooting against” the bad? I’ve read somewhere holding anger in your heart isn’t the best thing for your overall health…

Steve: If I listened to any of the self-help books I subscribe to then yes, I probably should take your advice. But it’s hard not to root against certain athletes, i.e., known cheaters. Actually, forget that, I don’t blame the athletes as much, even the Russians. It’s the whole freaking system: the IOC, WADA, and every other acronym that created a system that promotes corruption. They created a system where Russian women 800m runners think that running faster than 2:04 for the 800 meter requires drugs. That’s nuts. We have high school girls run that every year. But in Russia, they think it takes drugs. That’s the system.

Brad: But hopefully that level of systemic doping isn’t everywhere. It’s in Russia. My advice: try not to root AGAINST any athlete, but absolutely root against the organizers of the games, who are so corrupt it’s actually unbelievable, as in hard to believe. [If you need a primer, just read this investigative report.] You probably want people jeering, booing, etc., the leadership of this defunct system. I mean this kind of gets us back to square one: Is there any way to drive change/protest besides not watching the games? Again: Not watching means raining on the parade of all the athletes who have given their lives for this moment and who compete clean…which is still probably (hopefully) the vast majority of athletes.

Steve: I’m not sure what the answer is or what can be done. Short of not watching the games, I think the best way for fans to protest is social media. So even simple things like voicing displeasure in the IOC, or helping athletes out with Rule 40 by thanking sponsors on social media since the athletes themselves aren’t allowed to.

But for things to actually change, it will take much, much more than what fans can do. It will take athletes taking a stand and saying this isn’t acceptable. And I’m not sure athletes want to do that as a whole.

Brad: How would athletes even do this? Are you talking about boycotting the games?

Steve: Unfortunately, something to that effect. Things only change when athletes take a stand. It might not even have to be a boycott, but think John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their hands with the glove on. Statements like that matter. If athletes all stood together and violated Rule 40, the IOC can’t throw out everyone. If athletes refused to compete at meets with known drug cheats, that would take care of it. If sponsors refused to support known dopers and their coaches, that would help, too. Organized taking a stand matters.

Brad: This reminds me of the prisoner’s dilemma. If just a few athletes speak out, those few lose. But if all the athletes speak out, they win.

Steve: Exactly. Which is why my guess is nothing will be done. It’s hard to organize athletes. Don’t take this the wrong way, but athletes have to be somewhat inherently selfish. You have to be selfish to train so many hours a day in pursuit of one thing.

Brad: Yeah…So if fans (myself included, I think) are going to watch, and athletes are going to compete, then I guess we are back where we started. Kind of. Maybe after this year’s games, the athletes actually organize something in advance of 2020, or the winter athletes in advance of 2018.

Are you going to watch the opening ceremonies?

Steve: At heart, I’m a fan. I’ll watch some of it. Maybe my anger will be a good chance to work on my mindfulness meditation practice.

Brad: I’m telling myself ‘I’m not sure,’ but I’ll probably watch, certainly I’ll watch the events my friends are competing in. Maybe my knowing too much, my disillusionment, will be a good chance for me to support my local brewery.

Steve: (Laughing.) Well I guess we’ve come around to a conclusion. The best way to watch the Olympics is either work on being a Zen master or a drunk.

Brad: Now that’s we’ve trashed the Olympics but are both resigned to watching it, any events you are especially excited for?

Steve: Well, Track nerd that I am, all of track and field and distance running. Outside of that, I’m not sure. Swimming is always interesting and triathlon will be fun to watch. But I’m just showing my endurance sports bias. What about you?

Brad: Judo.

Steve: (Laughter)

Brad: But seriously, probably all of it. Here’s to the games. And to New Balance, Oiselle, Brooks, Adidas, Saucony, Under Armour, Hoka, Sketchers, that random Michael Phelps swimming brand, and all the others who support the athletes and are the reason the games are taking place on in the first place. Hashtag #Rule40

Steve: We could be in violation for all I know. So we better end this before the IOC pulls the plug for us.

Brad and Steve are coauthoring a forthcoming book, PEAK PERFORMANCE, and also publish a newsletter by the same name. Follow them @bstulberg @stevemagness for updates throughout the Olympic Games.