By any standard, Kimia Alizadeh’s journey to Tokyo is one of the most remarkable tales of this year’s Olympics. Born in modest circumstances in Karaj, Iran, she was catapulted to national fame in 2016 when she won bronze in the taekwondo 57kg category in Rio de Janeiro, becoming Iran’s first ever female Olympic medallist. She was publicly praised by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The president Hassan Rouhani called Alizadeh “my daughter”. On arriving back in Tehran, she was greeted by huge crowds and garlanded with flowers.
But in January 2020, she defected and went into hiding. In a statement she described herself as “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran”, denouncing the government’s corruption and exploitation of female athletes. She claimed asylum in Germany, where she lives with her husband. Now, officially stateless and competing for the Olympic Refugee Team, she won her first match against – as fate would have it – her friend and former team-mate, Nahid Kiani of Iran. Then, in a thrilling second-round encounter, she took on – and sensationally beat – Jade Jones, the double Olympic champion from Great Britain.
Alas, if you were following the Olympic taekwondo on BBC television, only the last part of this story will have been deemed to be of any relevance to you. Perhaps it was only natural that a British broadcaster would choose to linger on Jones’s shock defeat in pursuit of an unprecedented third taekwondo Olympic gold: the gasping heartbreak, the flowing tears, the glowing studio tributes to a “great champion”. Even so, there was a coldness to the way her conqueror was essentially edited out of the coverage.
Not only was there no mention of Alizadeh’s remarkable story, but there was barely any analysis of how she had won. The rest of the competition was discussed only in terms of what it meant for Jones (Alizadeh was defeated in the semi-finals but had she reached the final, Jones would have been eligible to fight for bronze). For the BBC, one of the most intriguing athletes at these Olympics existed only as a vague, faceless other, briefly illuminated by her proximity to Our Brave, Brilliant Jade.
As the delayed Olympics finally kicks into gear, this is becoming a recurring theme. The message coming out of the Team GB camp at these Games is that the ruthless, unstinting emphasis on medals at all costs is being diluted ever so slightly. After winning a spectacular 27 golds in Rio, finishing second in the medal table, expectations are a little more modest this time around. But based on the early coverage – both on traditional and social media – the cult of Team GB appears as strong as ever. Early successes for the swimmer Adam Peaty, the diver Tom Daley and the mountain biker Tom Pidcock have generated the sort of familiar wholesale parochialism that now largely defines Britain’s relationship with the Olympics. Over the past decade, the greatest sporting pageant on Earth has been reimagined as Team GB vs Everyone Else.
It wasn’t always like this. At every Summer Olympics between 1928 and 1996, Britain won between one and six gold medals. A wall-to-wall fixation on British success wasn’t possible; there wasn’t enough of it to go around. But the injection of Lottery funding in the 21st century, swelling Britain to Olympic superpower status, has narrowed our horizons. These days, wherever you look, whatever time you tune in, there is invariably a Briton going for a medal.
The BBC, which no longer owns the exclusive broadcast rights and is restricted to just two live streams, now devotes itself almost entirely to covering Team GB’s exploits. And not just in competition: athletes are profiled in forensic, borderline-creepy detail, their extended families wheeled in front of the camera to express their monosyllabic pride, their primary school PE teachers interrogated for insight. This is more than a mere editorial line, and besides, the BBC is in many respects reflecting rather than setting the priorities of its audience. Rather, it’s a world-view, bordering on collective disorder: a selective blindness, a logical extension of the empty, mechanical nationalism that seems to have gripped this country over the past decade.
Most telling of all is how rarely we are invited to engage with the sport itself: on countless occasions viewers are simply thrown straight into some random British medal bid without any explanation of the rules, the contenders, the storylines, the context. The numerous wonderful sports in which there is little or no British interest – basketball, handball, volleyball, surfing – are largely ignored. Great athletes – the genius archers of South Korea, the brilliant badminton players of south-east Asia, the judokas of Japan, the inspiring tales of adversity, tragedy and triumph – are reduced to an afterthought. The rest of the world exists only as an enabler of British triumph.
So here are just a few of the stories you may have missed over the first few days of the Games: Hend Zaza, the 12-year-old Syrian table tennis player who survived a civil war and made it to Tokyo; France’s stunning 83-76 triumph over the all-star US team in the men’s basketball; the Austrian cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer, who won the women’s road race in one of the sport’s greatest upsets; Momiji Nishiya, the tearful, beaming 13-year-old home gold medallist in the women’s street skateboarding; and the Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui, who won the men’s 400 metres freestyle despite qualifying slowest for the final. So often the Games is folded into a narrative of national virility, national superiority, national glory. The real lesson of the Olympics, surely, is that greatness comes from everywhere.
[see also: Podcast: What the Tokyo Olympics means to Japan]
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special