I’m sure it will come to a surprise to no one who knows I wrote a trilogy set at the Olympics that I am an Olympics superfan. I’m not athletic, but as a teenager, I took swim classes, and used to fantasize I was swimming at the Olympics when my instructor made me swim laps. I was never in the same universe as an elite swimmer, but a girl can dream.
The Elite Athletes series was on a publication schedule meant to coincide with the 2020 Olympics, but then, you know, global pandemic.
So now the 202…1 Olympics are about to start.
I get it if people feel ambivalent this year. Tokyo declaring a state of emergency just before the games are supposed to start because COVID cases are surging in Japan is not great. A series of decisions by the various governing agencies that regulate each sport (the most egregious of which is, IMHO, kicking Sha’Carri Richardson off the US track team for smoking marijuana, which I think we can all agree only enhances your performance at napping and eating snacks) have left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. On the other hand, most of these athletes have been training for years or their whole lives for this moment and there’s a very narrow window during which they can compete at this level, and canceling the Olympics would hurt the athletes. Also, Simone Biles. So my feelings about the Olympics this year are complicated.
But I’ve been preparing some Elite Athletes Bonus Content, so I figured I’d share in case you intend to watch! Keep reading for some games you can play at home and some commentary on the American athletes to watch for.
First, I made an Olympic Bingo Card (PDF) so you can play along as you watch the games this year. This is just good fun. Your prize is a job well done.
Next, I did actually watch the US trials for diving, swimming, track and gymnastics. If you’re interested, here are some things to look out for:
One thing that I thought was really interesting this year was that it felt like a new generation was taking over. A lot of athletes we saw in 2012 and 2016 (or earlier in a few cases) competed at trials but couldn’t keep up with the young up-and-comers. So the diving team, for example, is all newcomers.
In swimming, now that Michael Phelps has retired, a whole new generation of swimmers has shown up. Watch for Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy in the men’s events and Katie Ledecky and Regan Smith in the women’s. (The American team is DEEP. Lots of them could win medals, including some teenagers who made the team.)
In track, the favorite in the men’s 100m is Trayvon Bromell. Also look for Michael Norman, Rai Benjamin, Gabby Thomas, and Allyson Felix, who were among my favorites to watch at trials.
Bonus track material: Hammer thrower Gwen Berry made some headlines for protesting during the anthem, like the media just forgot that US athletes have a long tradition of activism. NBC made a documentary a few years ago (that is actually quite good!) about protests at the 1968 Mexico City games, narrated by Serena Williams. The whole thing is on YouTube (and I think the free part of Peacock, too). Starz also recently produced a documentary called With Drawn Arms about Tommie Smith, who was part of the 1968 protest.
In gymnastics, Simone Biles is, of course, the GOAT. Her second day at the US trials was a little rough, but she is still indisputably the best in the world. On the men’s side, Brody Malone is the US champ and looked great at trials. Yul Muldauer was also fun to watch and consistently good. Sam Mikulak is the old man on the squad (he’s 28 and this is his 3rd Olympics). On the ladies side, I like Suni Lee and Jordan Chiles a lot. (I’ve been watching Jordan all season, and she’s been on FIRE.) Speaking of activist athletes, Mykayla Skinner’s hair at trials reminded me of Vera Caslavska. (See this.)
When I was researching Stick the Landing, I got deep in the gymnastics weeds, including gymnastics history. I don’t want to take anything away from athletes of the past, but Simone Biles is just on a different planet from, say, Nadia Comaneci or Olga Korbut, you know? On the other hand, there’s Ludmilla Tourischeva, who dismounts as the bars fall apart behind her and doesn’t even react. Badass. (Any excuse to share that clip. It cracks me up every time.)
Above and beyond the general games, gymnastics is also kind of it’s own thing, so make a cocktail and play along with this drinking game I cooked up.
The Gymnastics Drinking Game:
Take a sip if:
Nastia Liukin mentions Dancing with the Stars.
Nastia Liukin wears wears something over the top.
Tim Daggett says “Gymnastics 101” when referring to a struck landing.
A male gymnast lets out a Masculine Roar of Triumph after finishing a routine.
A gymnast wears glasses.
A gymnast talks to a camera right after finishing a routine.
A gymnast performs a move named after him/herself. (i.e., Simone Biles does a Biles.)
A gymnast over 30 (from any country) competes.
Finish your drink if:
The American men’s team wins a medal.
The American women’s wins gold.
Simone Biles wins All-Around Gold.
Any American gymnast wins an apparatus medal.
And finally! A little shameless self-promotion. If you got this far, you may be an Olympics fan, so check out the Elite Athletes series! These links go to bookstores so you can own your very own copies in ebook or paperback!