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Climate Disasters Are Making It Hard to Enjoy the Olympics. And I’m Not Sure I Want to, Anyway

6 minute read

A version of this story first appeared in the Climate is Everything newsletter. If you’d like sign up to receive this free once-a-week email, click here.

As the U.S. approached a coronavirus peak last July, a noticeably eerie Disney World reopening advertisement began making the rounds online. Cases were rising, driven by a false sense of security in much of the country and bad faith arguments around masking and social distancing. But at Disney World, the sun was shining, and rides were open. Low-paid service workers waved while wearing surgical masks, apparently thrilled (or at least willing) to come in contact with crowds of tourists braving the pandemic for a spot on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Often, rather than reassuring us, such mass recreations of normalcy in the midst of a disaster can deepen our sense of unease, because they reveal an unsettling truth: the people who should take responsibility either don’t understand how bad things are, or do not care.

Watching the Olympics this year amid endless, compounding climate disasters has given me pangs of that pandemic-at-Disney-World feeling. It’s not that the Olympic organizers aren’t trying, at least in some sense. They’ve made great strides to conduct this summer’s Games sustainably, using renewable energy to light their arenas, for instance, and offsetting the event’s emissions with carbon credits, while a lack of international spectators (and reduced team staffing) eliminates the climate toll of jetting hundreds of thousands of people to Tokyo. One could say that this year’s Olympics offers a measure of hope from a climate perspective, demonstrating how huge, inspiring events might be conducted sustainably in the years ahead.

But then there’s that gut feeling that, following once-in-a-thousand-year floods in China’s interior, unprecedented wildfires raging in Siberia, and a heatwave in the Pacific Northwest so intense as to nearly defy scientific understanding, something about the international spectacle playing out in Tokyo isn’t right.

For one thing, it’s clear that climate change will make it increasingly difficult to host such events. Expected conditions in Tokyo were hot enough that organizers moved the Olympic marathon almost 500 miles north to avoid televised scenes of world-class runners collapsing from heat exhaustion. As the climate warms in the years ahead, we might find ourselves doing a lot more such reshuffling. Three decades out, a dwindling number of cities in the world will even be able to host summer athletic events without putting the health of participants and spectators in jeopardy. By 2050, no more than six of 45 large East Asian cities will be cool enough to safely hold an August summer Olympics, according to Japanese newspaper Nikkei Asia. In Southeast Asia, none will be.

Then there’s the question of what, exactly, this all is for. That’s not to say all athletic competitions necessarily need to have a point over and above athletics. But the Olympics have always gestured toward some grander purpose, a sense of participation in a unique, human project—smelting, in these fires of competition, a transnational camaraderie and understanding that will somehow help make the world a better place.

Judging by the past few years of climate action, all that supposed camaraderie hasn’t amounted to much. Every year, as the world slips ever closer to irrecoverable climate tipping points, our national leaders attend international conferences and repeat the same old arguments, attempting to preserve the interests of their own fossil fuel conglomerates and shift the burden of cutting emissions onto others’ shoulders. Just last week, my colleague Justin Worland attended the G20 summit in Naples, Italy, where the same tired sticking points were brought out and hashed over again, despite the lateness of the hour. “It was hard,” he wrote, after yet another round of inconclusive negotiations, “not to feel a sense of existential dread.” Maybe then, as the seas rise, ice sheets melt and disasters-of-a-millennia crowd up like Space Mountain thrill-seekers, it’s time to cut the crap. We’re watching the Olympics because it’s fun, and because we like to see our team win. But as industrialized nations continue to bicker ahead of global climate talks at COP26 in November, is that really enough?

We plan out more Olympic Games, 2032 in Brisbane, and then 2036, and all the way out to 2052 and beyond, as if we can live a future that’s really just more of the past—as if, with a modicum of pledges and minor adjustments, our world might remain much the same as the one that brought us to the brink of disaster in the first place. Perhaps we can also pretend it’s ok for Exxon and Shell to keep opening new drilling sites for just a few more years, that green investment and radical rethinking of transportation, agriculture and concrete production can wait another decade or so, even as an escalating series of climate disasters, from famine in Madagascar to another summer of West Coast fires , make unmistakably clear that everything is not ok. Olympians have a right to compete, and people have a right to watch. We all need inspiration and meaning, especially in trying times. But let us at least acknowledge that at this stage of the crisis, with massive climate disasters upon us and the future on the line, attempts at business-as-usual are beyond unsettling. In fact, they can be downright terrifying.

Read more about the Tokyo Olympics:

  • Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s O.K. to Not Be O.K.’
  • Motherhood Could Have Cost Olympian Allyson Felix. She Wouldn’t Let It
  • Simone Biles’ Olympic Team Final Withdrawal Could Help Athletes Put Their Mental Health First
  • ‘Unapologetic and Unafraid.’ Sue Bird Stares Down Olympic Glory in Tokyo and Equity Off the Court
  • Meet 6 Heroes Who Helped Battle COVID-19 Before Competing in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics
  • Here’s How Many Medals Every Country Has Won at the Tokyo Summer Olympics So Far
  • 48 Athletes to Watch at the Tokyo Olympics
  • The Olympic Refugee Team Was Created to Offer Hope. Some Athletes Are Running Away From It
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    Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com