For some 125 years, we have been asking too much of the Olympic Games. Universal brotherhood? Tell it to the fans who saw blood in the water when the Soviet Union met Hungary in water polo in 1956, or heard the chants of “U-S-A” when the Americans beat the Soviets at ice hockey in 1980 during the depths of the Cold War. Idealized sportsmanship? Not as long as positive drug tests remain a staple of Olympiads.
For host nations, the Olympic torch can be a seductive illusion, as Brazil is finding out. How long will it be before the mention of Rio no longer conjures thoughts of Zika and raw sewage?
Yet somehow the Games still deliver more than enough: of beauty, of drama, of excitement, of joy. When the hype finally gives way to the sports, we are moved by the athletes themselves, young people of great talent yoked to urgent souls. In fractions of an inch and hundredths of a second, they measure out portions of hope, tangible signs of human progress against the often heavy evidence of stagnation. They pull back the curtain of what is to reveal a glimpse of what can be. And so we say: let the games begin.
Read more: Kohei Uchimura, Gymnastics, Japan
This appears in the August 08, 2016 issue of TIME.