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Yet Another Indignity for Olympic Athletes

US sprinter Marion Jones is interviewed moments after winning the 100m at the 2000 Olympics. Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

“Hot Bod” is an exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

“Imagine maxing out. Your lungs are burning, spit is flying. You can’t think straight, you can’t see straight, and you have to make the boat go straight.” That’s how the announcer of the Olympic men’s crew competition earlier this week described what it’s like to row at this speed. It’s like a body on fire from the inside out. It was this image — of a lung aflame — that danced in my head as the German rowers were besieged with questions after their win. They heaved, they panted, they huffed nothing answers into the microphone — and their exhausted lungs had to keep waiting to recover. In the meantime, they had to eke out words! Has a lung been more deserving of a break?

The Olympics, especially this year, is all about people achieving extraordinary feats in a pretty terrible context. What a microcosm of the human experience! And as humans, just like the Olympians, we know how annoying it is when people try to talk to us while we are tired, overwhelmed, depleted, distracted, and busy trying to celebrate with someone who isn’t so nosy.

And yet, we keep bombarding them. The cameras hover. The microphones waggle in front of their dazed expressions. At worst, an athlete will look like they might pass out (a sprightly, overwhelmed underdog I saw on Sunday). At worst, an athlete will look like they might barf (an endurance-sport champion I saw on Monday). I saw a triathlete winner writhing on the ground like a Renaissance painting of a saint experiencing the forceful light of divinity surging through their body. Is this person supposed to describe this feeling in an interview moments later? At best, the athletes are preoccupied, stunned, hovering between worlds, existing between this realm and that. They’re hyperventilating, they’re crying, they’re screaming, they’re gasping, they’re wheezing. And these interviews are competing for precious intakes of oxygen that the Olympians really need, at that moment more than ever!

I was raised road biking with my parents. Early on, they taught me that if you want to be really rude to someone you’re biking with, ask them a personal question on a steep climb. You wait until your cycling companion is just starting to shudder for breath, just struggling to self-regulate, and you say, “What do you think of your neighbors who cut down that beautiful mature oak tree?” My parents and I will do this to one another, but only because we can tell each other to go away.

Many of these athletes are too polite to pant such a thing, but I can see all the signs of it in their eyes. Olympians are already doing so much, they’re really doing the most and the best. Describing what they’ve just done seems like one less thing they could do.

After their astounding performance in the qualifying race earlier in June, Olympian runners Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad could barely utter more than four words at a time before they needed a sharp intake of breath. Maybe a sign they should be permitted to cool down before interviews! Even with relay swimmers a couple days ago — three of whom had some minutes to recover — it was impossible to tell the order of who’d been out of the pool first, because they were all heaving. If someone’s still dripping from their event, that feels like a great physical cue they’re still recovering. If someone still has their bike helmet on and they’re shaking with tears and general metabolic expenditure, like this year’s mountain bike medalist was during his interviews, that also seems like a good signal they haven’t had a moment to unwind. But no matter how much sweat drips down their forehead, no matter how much pool water falls down their heads, curious botherers are devoted to asking, “What just happened?” 

What’s more, Olympians almost never, truly, not once that I’ve seen, say anything close to insightful during these reaction interviews. It’s a long-running stereotype that jocks aren’t brains. I don’t think that’s true! I do think that after a grueling physical endeavor, one’s brain might take a back seat. The shocking breakaway champion of women’s road cycling this year, Austrian Anna Kiesenhofer, has a Ph.D. in applied math. She sounds smart! A bit after the race, an anchor asked Kiesenhofer if she’d been thinking about her academic work while she was on the lonely road, sprinting to her gold medal. “When I’m riding hard, there’s not enough blood and oxygen in my brain to do math,” she said. Of course athletes can be sharp wits, of course they can be thoughtful analysts of the human condition, of course they can possess a poet’s off-kilter flair: But after their events, they’re all mostly monosyllabic, surprised, and just grateful to be there, at the Olympics.

As someone who is both (1) irritated by inane lines of questioning, and (2) frequently out of breath after I sprint, I’ve always been empathetically annoyed by post-competition interviews. During this lonely and dangerous Olympic year, the pestering seems … heartless. The Olympians have so much less this year. Their families, their fans, their partners are absent — and this absence just isolates the way these interviews are kinda bloodsucking. The participants aren’t surrounded by a cheering, loving, hugging support system that they might really appreciate, and one of the only things left in the void is just another demand. Another insistence asking for a little more from them, just one more squeeze of water from the stone, just one more final push, after they have just pushed as hard as anyone has ever pushed probably. They put their bodies fully on the line; and directly after, we demand they talk about it.  After Team USA swimmer Caeleb Dressel set a winning record in the men’s 100-meter swim and won gold, he was promptly asked: “You reached the dream. How does it compare to what you thought it would be?” Dressel shook his dripping, champion head, and said, “It’s a really tough year, it’s really hard,” and burst right into tears.

We can never know what’s in another human’s brain; it has fascinated us forever. I share this curiosity. I also just think we can always wait a minute before we ask.

Yet Another Indignity for Olympic Athletes