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Nora Ephron’s 3 Rules for Middle-Age Happiness
Illustrations by Liana FinckMay 2011“The only thing a uterus is good for after a certain point is causing pain and killing you. Why are we even talking about this?” Nora jams a fork into her chopped chicken salad, the one she insisted I order as well. “If your doctor says it needs to come out, yank it out.” Nora speaks her mind the way others breathe: an involuntary reflex, not a choice. (Obviously, all dialogue here, including my own, is recorded from the distortion field of memory.)“But the uterus …” I say, spearing a slice of egg. “It’s so …”“Symbolic?”“Yes. Don’t roll your eyes.”“I’m not rolling my eyes.” She leans in. “I’m trying to get you to face a, well, it’s not even a hard truth. It’s an easy one. Promise me the minute you leave this lunch you’ll pick up the phone and schedule the hysterectomy today. Not tomorrow. Today.”“Why the rush?”“Why the hesitation?” Nora has leukemia. She knows this. I do not. This post was excerpted from Copaken’s forthcoming book. Ten years earlier, Nora had cold-called my home, annoyed that she’d had to get my number through a friend. Throughout her life, if you dialed 411 and asked for her home number, you’d get it. “Why would you ever not be listed?” she’d said. “What if someone needs to get in touch with you?” But first she said, “Hi, Deb, this is Nora Ephron. I loved your memoir, and I’d like to take you out to lunch.”“Yeah, right,” I said. “And I’m Joan of Arc.” I assumed it was a friend, mimicking her voice. Nora was my superhero. Screenwriter, director, novelist, humorist, essayist, journalist—Nora did all the things I wanted to do but better, faster, stronger. I saw Heartburn three times when it first came out; When Harry Met Sally, too many times to count.“No, Deb. This is Nora. And I’d like to invite you to lunch.”I froze. It was her. Nora effing Ephron. On the other end of my phone. So what does one say to the woman whose work you’ve admired your entire life? For starters, not this: “Ummmm …”“Are you still there?” said Nora.A long, uncomfortable pause. “Sorry. Lunch. Yes!”I’d been clutching a roll of bubble wrap when she called, staring at a wall of family photos that needed to come down. Our dark 1.5-bedroom was located over a parking garage that overheated every summer, rendering the kitchen tiles too hot for bare feet. Its windows framed the last stop of the M79 bus route. Buses idled there 24/7, blasting a toxic cloud of metaphor into the master bedroom.Moving boxes were everywhere. My husband and I were eight years into our marriage, six years into parenthood, and five days away from seeing whether more light, air, and space could keep our marriage from collapsing. Our new living room, bright and fume-free, had an oblique view of the Twin Towers. Until it didn’t.Now, a decade later, Nora’s my go-to person on every topic: Couches, she tells me, should be white; tables, round; emails, short; lunches, long. “You don’t need it anymore,” she says, still harping on about my uterus. “It served you well, but that part of your life is over.”She’s right. I’m 45, I have three children––two teenagers and a preschooler––and I’m not planning on having any more. And yet: Who am I without my uterus?“How great is this chicken salad?” says Nora.“Delicious.”Our lunches have become a monthly fixture, to which Nora often arrives bearing gifts with careful instructions for their use: Dr. Hauschka’s lemon oil (“Dump at least half a bottle in the bath water. Don’t skimp. If you like it, I’ll get you more”); a black cardigan from Zara (“I bought five of them, they were so cheap. You can wear it on your book tour. Look, the buttons look just like a Chanel”); a silver picture frame (“Black-and-white photos only. Color won’t work”).“Won’t I feel like less of a woman without a uterus?” I ask.“Oh, please.” Nora rolls her eyes again. “Would you rather not have a uterus or be dead? They go in with robots now. You’ll barely have a scar. So what is this adeno … How do you pronounce the thing you have?”“Adenomyosis,” I say, Googling it on my phone to make sure I get the definition right: A chronic condition in which the lining of the uterus breaks through the muscle wall, causing extensive bleeding, increased risk of anemia, heavy cramping, and severe bloating.“Sounds delightful. I see now why you’d want to keep it.”I laugh. Then I sigh. I’ve been putting up with this disease for 16 years because, like most women who get adenomyosis (or endometriosis, its equally wily cousin), I had no idea I had it. “How are your periods?” my gynecologist would ask every year, and every year I would answer, “Heavy,” but with a tone that implied I had everything under control. Why didn’t I tell my doctor I had vicelike cramps and slept on a doggy wee-wee pad half the month to catch the overflow?Every woman in a paper robe, facing her doctor, knows she is silently being judged. “Come on! It can’t be that bad,” a doctor once told me, diagnosing a mild case of gas three hours before I had an emergency appendectomy.I’d had painful and heavy periods since adolescence, but they grew exponentially worse after the birth of my first child, in 1995. It wasn’t until just after my annual checkup in 2011, however, that my general practitioner became alarmed. A woman is considered anemic when she has fewer than 12 grams of hemoglobin per deciliter of blood. I had seven. “This can’t be right,” my doctor said, staring at my results. “How are you even standing?”I was sitting. “I’ve been a little tired.” (I’m exhausted!)“Are you able to work and take care of the kids?”“I do my best.” (Who else is going to do it?)“Look,” said my doctor. “We can either hospitalize you every month for anemia or you can go ahead and get a hysterectomy. It’s your choice, but not really? I don’t think getting transfusions every month is a sustainable life choice.”“Whatever it’s called,” says Nora, “I want you to promise me you’ll get that hysterectomy this year.” Also, she doesn’t like the paperback cover design for my new novel, a picture of a woman lying on a park bench with a book in her hand. “She looks dead. Like the book was so boring, it killed her.”July 2011“I can’t do this anymore,” I finally admit to Nora. I call her early, too distraught to elaborate, after a particularly disturbing interaction with my husband the previous night.She’s at her house in East Hampton and reserves me a ticket on the jitney while we are still on the phone. “I’ll meet you at the bus stop. Don’t eat. I’m making lunch.” Five years earlier, when I’d called to say I couldn’t attend the baby shower she was throwing for me, because my prematurely contracting uterus and I were now on bed rest, she showed up at my apartment with a dozen lobsters, two homemade lemon-meringue pies, our mutual friends, and her sleeves rolled up to do the dishes when the party was over.I’ve told no one but my shrink about the darker corners of my marriage, but when Nora picks me up, I unearth all of it. Every last bone. A few years earlier, my husband was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and although the diagnosis helped us understand both his lack of empathy and my anger over its absence, it’s one thing to comprehend the origins of our marital dysfunction and quite another to fix it. I still feel alone, unseen, and frequently gaslit; he still feels confused and hurt by my seething fury.After the exorcism, Nora’s husband, Nick, joins us for lunch, placing his hands gently on his wife’s shoulders before kissing the top of her head. “Is this for real?” I say dubiously, air-circling their conjoined heads with my finger: Harry and Sally, in their golden years. “Is this as good as it seems?” My jealousy burns almost as brightly as my admiration.“No,” says Nick. “It’s better.”“Deb!” Nora laughs, standing up and walking to the kitchen counter. “He’s my third husband. If you can’t get it right by your third marriage, well … Come. Help me carry the salad to the table.” She slices thick slabs of peasant bread. “Are you staying over tonight?”“I can’t,” I say. “I have to pick up my son at 5:30.”Nora purses her lips. “Might his father be able to do that?”“I’ll ask,” I say, knowing before dialing his number that the answer will be no.“You know I’m here for you if you decide to pull the plug,” she tells me, “but please: Try to fix the marriage before taking any drastic measures. Marriages come and go, but divorce is forever.” She scribbles the name and number of her friend Joyce, a Jungian therapist who treats couples at an impasse, on a scrap of paper. “Joyce is a genius,” she says. “Call her.”December 2011“You’re not eating,” says Nora.“I had a big breakfast.” Stress has eaten my appetite. Anemia has eaten my red blood cells.“No. Sorry. You are not allowed to add anorexia onto adeno … whatever it’s called. Did you schedule that surgery yet?”“I can’t have a major operation right now. I’ll do it after my novel comes out.”“What exactly are you worried about when you imagine going under the knife?” she asks.“I’m not worried about going under the knife,” I say, moving the pieces of cucumber and chicken around on my plate like pawns on a chessboard. “I’m worried about the aftermath.” The day after my appendectomy, my husband had asked me to bring him a Sudafed for his runny nose, because my side of the bed was closer to the bathroom. I fiddle with my wedding band: a new tic.Nora notices. She notices everything. “How are things going with Joyce?”“Joyce is great.”“And the marriage?I sigh. Not wanting to disappoint her, but unable to find hopeful words. “About as healthy as my uterus.”She pauses, weighing her words. “He doesn’t have Asperger’s, you know. I’m sure of it.”“What? No, stop.” This is the only argument we will ever have in our 11-year friendship, the only time her well-earned confidence about always being right gets in the way of the truth.“But he’s so at ease at our dinner parties,” she says. “And he truly seems to love you. It doesn’t make sense.”“It’s a ruse, his ease,” I say. “It’s a survival skill. He knows how to watch and listen carefully and learn behaviors. He watched rom-coms, for example, to figure out how to woo me.”“Seriously?” says Nora, rom-com auteur.“More or less,” I say.“Okay, fine. I’ll stop.” She gives me the dreaded Nora Stare™: a raised-eyebrow, chin-down, crooked-mouth rebuke. “But that doesn’t mean I think you’re right.”I laugh. “I wouldn’t want you any other way.” I look across the table at this daughterless woman who has all but adopted me and several other women. Who never judges my actions but tries to understand. Who champions my work, even when it’s not going well, and loves my children as if they were her own. Who teaches me, by example, how to navigate the postreproductive half of my life: Gather friends in your home and feed them, laugh in the face of calamity, cut out all the things––people, jobs, body parts––that no longer serve you.After lunch, she flags down a taxi. “Are you feeling okay?” I ask. She lives three blocks away. She always walks home.“I’m fine,” she says. She shuts the door and rolls down the window. “Schedule that surgery already, please! And be nice to your husband. One more shot, okay? For my sake.”“Okay, okay!” I watch the blur of yellow that is Nora disappear up Madison Avenue and set a date for my hysterectomy.June 2012“I’m dying to see you,” I write Nora, the morning after my surgery, at the precise moment when she, unbeknownst to me, is the one doing the hard work of dying. “Wanted to see what your summer looks like so we can plan something in, I dunno, late July?”Unusually, she does not write back. Or even call. I’m unnerved. She always responds to my emails within an hour or two, max.The hysterectomy—which, just as Nora had predicted, was done with robot arms—had lasted a little more than eight hours. I’d woken up in recovery to the sounds of the nurses whispering: “Where’s the husband? Has anyone seen the husband? We can’t reach him. Is there another number?”“What?” I said, suddenly cogent and in pain.“We can’t find your husband,” said the unfamiliar faces now hovering over my head. “Is there anyone else we can call at this time?”“Yes. Call Nora, please.”“Who’s Nora?” said the nurse.“Nora Ephron. She’s listed. Call 411. That’s E-p-h-r- …”“She’s delirious,” the nurses whispered.Back home, less than 24 hours after surgery, I beg my husband for a lunch that never comes, for quiet that never falls, for help with our older son, who’s stuck downstairs in a taxi without cash to pay the fare. “I’m watching a movie,” he yells from the TV room. “Can you do it?”I end up screaming at him with so much force, a hernia pops out of one of my incisions. “That’s it. I want a divorce,” I say. Nora will understand. She has to. I’ll call her first thing tomorrow to tell her.Instead, I’m awoken by a series of texts from a friend, asking if I’ve heard the news: Nora is gravely ill. What? I call Nora’s cellphone. She doesn’t pick up. I write her another email. She doesn’t respond. Her death is announced the next day. Her face is all over the TV, her voice all over the radio; I have to turn off both to keep from weeping.Her husband invites her friends to their apartment to eat the chicken-salad sandwiches Nora herself picked out for the occasion. “Why didn’t she tell us?” we all ask one another.She’d told almost no one about her cancer, including her sons, until the end. Which was odd, as she was the self-proclaimed Queen of Indiscretion. Years before it was public knowledge, she told me and anyone else who would listen that Deep Throat was the FBI agent Mark Felt. At a dinner party, when a friend asked Nora if she was working on a new movie, she said yes but she wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Then she proceeded to spill every last detail about Julie & Julia, including the fact that she’d just spoken to Meryl Streep about coming on as its lead. How could she have kept her own terminal illness a secret?Back home, my teenage daughter stops me as I head into the bathroom. “Mom,” she says, “I need to tell you something really personal, but I’ve been worried about telling you while you’re recovering. I didn’t want to bother you. The coincidence is just too … weird.”“Hit me,” I say.“Okay, so, while you were in the hospital? Like, literally during the exact hours when they were removing your uterus?”“Yes?”“I got my period.”“What?!!! No!!! That’s so crazy! Congratulations!” I hug her. I kiss her. The torch has been passed. Life goes on. What comes out of me can only be described as craughing: that combination of crying and laughter. “Do you have everything you need? I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for that. Do you even know how to use a—”“Mom! Oh my God, stop. Yes. I’m the last one of my friends to get it. They taught me everything.”“Okay, okay, but promise me one thing,” I say, channeling Nora.“Sure,” she says, “what?”“Promise me you’ll never be afraid to talk to me about anything.”“Oh my God, Mom. Chill. It’s just my period.”“No, no!” I laugh. “I’m not talking about periods. I mean, like … anything.”“Duh, of course,” she says, and suddenly it strikes me: Of course Nora told no one about her illness. The transmission of woes is a one-way street, from child to mother. A good mother doesn’t burden her children with her pain. She waits until it becomes so heavy, it either breaks her or kills her, whichever comes first.This article was adapted from Deborah Copaken’s book Ladyparts: A Memoir.When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
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theatlantic.com
This Court Has Abandoned the Most Essential Element in American Democracy: Voters
Some Supreme Court watchers found relief in the Court’s recent decisions, many of which were narrow and stopped short of overturning major precedents. But two rulings underscore what Americans need to know about the post-Trump Court: It isn’t invested in defending the rights of American voters, the Constitution’s core demographic, with the same vigor that it applies to the interests of nonpersons, such as corporations.In two cases decided on the same day, the Court signaled its side. In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, a 6–3 majority watered down what’s left of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on the rationale that voters showed insufficient harm to overcome Arizona’s reasons for limiting access to the ballot box. In Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, conversely, a fractured conservative majority—with Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas joining in the outcome but on differing rationales set forth in a spate of concurring opinions—rejected California’s justifications for a law requiring charitable organizations to reveal their donors, instead staunchly defending the First Amendment rights of the plaintiffs, even with no showing of actual harm.What’s striking about these decisions is the intellectual discordance underlying the respective legal tests applied by the majority. Writing for the majority in Brnovich, Alito imposed a five-factor threshold requirement on voters seeking to bring cases under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which itself contains no such test. In Bonta, two tax-exempt charities sued California, arguing that their donors’ privacy interests were at stake if they couldn’t remain anonymous to the state. Yet Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion required virtually no showing that the disclosures expose donors to damage so as to justify striking down the California law—in sharp contrast to the Arizona laws upheld in Brnovich.The Brnovich dispute can be traced to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, in which a conservative majority effectively destroyed Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. (Section 5 required states with histories of discrimination in voting to obtain the green light from the Justice Department before new state laws could go into effect, a process known as “preclearance.”) As problematic voting laws surged back onto the scene, voters turned to its cousin, Section 2, for judicial relief. Section 2 prohibits any voting prerequisite that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” It goes on to explain that a violation occurs if, “based on the totality of the circumstances, it is shown that the [election processes] are not equally open to participation by members of [a given race] in that [those] members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate.”[Guy-Uriel E. Charles and Luis E. Fuentes-Rohwer: The court’s voting-rights decision was worse than people think]Importantly, the statute does not define key terms such as results, totality of the circumstances, equally open, or opportunity. The conservative majority in Brnovich filled in those legislative blanks—to the detriment of voters.The plaintiffs claimed, among other reasons, that Arizona laws confining who can collect ballots on behalf of voters violate Section 2 because Native Americans on reservations have relatively scant access to post offices or private transportation to polling sites as compared with other voters. They also challenged a provision that cancels a voter’s entire ballot—not just picks for local races—if the voter mistakenly votes in the wrong precinct. The out-of-precinct law hits low-income, minority voters disproportionately hard, as Arizona moves polling places 30 percent more frequently in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods than in white ones.From this bald statutory language, Alito surmised that “equal openness and equal opportunity are not separate requirements,” despite Congress’s use of both terms in the statute. Open, Alito reasoned, means “without restrictions as to who may participate,” whereas openness means “a situation or condition favorable to attainment of a goal.” So a polling station might be open to all people, regardless of race, but the opportunity to vote may differ based on racial factors because, for example, white neighborhoods have more polling places per capita and machines in each station than predominantly Black neighborhoods. But because the statute also uses the words in that—i.e., “in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process”—Alito figured, “equal opportunity helps to explain the meaning of equal openness.” Alito essentially conflated opportunity with openness, thereby narrowing the reach of the Voting Rights Act. Only discrimination as to who is permitted to participate in the first place is covered.Alito went on to articulate a five-factor test for equal openness under the statute’s “totality of the circumstances” language. According to Alito, it’s not enough for voters to show that their opportunity for ballot access negatively differs from that of voters of other races by virtue of a law. Instead, voters must demonstrate (1) “obstacles and burdens that block or seriously hinder voting”; (2) “the degree to which a voting rule departs from what was standard practice when § 2 was amended in 1982”; (3) “the size of any disparities in a rule’s impact on members of different racial or ethnic groups,” as “small disparities are less likely than large ones to indicate that a system is not equally open”; (4) the unavailability of other “opportunities provided by a State’s entire system of voting”; and (5) the relative weakness of “the state interests served by a challenged voting rule.” For this last factor, Alito quipped that “one strong and entirely legitimate state interest is the prevention of fraud.”In a scathing dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority opinion “mostly inhabits a law-free zone.” Although Congress designed Section 2 to bring about “the end of discrimination in voting,” Alito’s third factor openly tolerates some measure of discrimination on the basis of race and color. Moreover, Section 2 was specifically amended by Congress to correct prior misinterpretations by courts that set the threshold too high for voters—a historical detail that underscores Congress’s goal of protecting voters from arbitrary voting rules enacted by state legislatures.For its part, Bonta involved a challenge to a California law requiring charitable organizations to disclose the names of major donors in order to register with the state. The Court applied a construction of the First Amendment that it called “exacting scrutiny,” which would allow the state to mandate the identification of donors if there is “a substantial relation between the disclosure requirement and a sufficiently important government interest.” The majority held that there was a “dramatic mismatch” between the state’s interest in investigating charities for fraud and the disclosure rule, calling it “a dragnet for sensitive donor information.” The Court thus vigorously protected unnamed, possibly wealthy donors in Bonta over the interests of the voting public. (No donors actually joined the lawsuit.)Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in her dissenting opinion that the majority went too far in “striking the law down in its entirety” with no proof that “disclosure will likely expose [donors] to objective harms, such as threats, harassment, or reprisals.” In fact, she complained, the chief justice’s opinion “recklessly holds a state regulation facially invalid despite petitioners’ failure to show that a substantial proportion of those affected would prefer anonymity, much less that they are objectively burdened by the loss of it.”[Stephen I. Vladeck: The Supreme Court needs to show its work]So for voters, the conservative majority accepted the state’s excuses for imposing burdensome voting laws at face value and manufactured a five-factor test that voters must satisfy before having any chance of overcoming those excuses. For charitable organizations and their unnamed backers, the conservative majority found that California’s interests in rooting out fraud were insufficient to justify a burden on charitable organizations that was not demonstrated with a showing of actual harm.To be sure, First Amendment law and voting-rights law did not develop in tandem, and anonymity is a valid and recognized interest under the Court’s precedent. But both are moored in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—ratified in 1788 and 1791, respectively—which were designed primarily with the rights of living, breathing human beings in mind. The animating concern was that politicians with unlimited power would bully regular people with impunity. Protecting individual people from arbitrary government action does—or should—remain the central guiding principle of constitutional jurisprudence today.The Supreme Court lost its bearings on this issue in 2010, when a conservative 5–4 majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down key provisions of federal legislation imposing campaign-finance restrictions. Its rationale was that limiting political spending by corporations violated those corporations’ First Amendment right to free speech. Given the Court’s history of snubbing voting-rights laws, pending legislative solutions proposed by congressional Democrats in the form of H.R. 1 (which would expand voting rights nationwide, amend campaign-finance laws, counteract partisan gerrymandering, and impose new ethics rules on federal officeholders) and H.R. 4 (which would restore Section 5 of the VRA), are insufficient fixes. If either bill were miraculously to survive a filibuster by Senate Republicans, the Court may well strike them down, or at the very least meaningfully weaken them.Moreover, Congress has yet to even propose vital amendments to the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which in its current form contains gaping loopholes that could provide an opening for Republican-dominated state legislatures to cancel a state’s popular vote after November 4, 2024, or, failing that, for a Republican-dominated Congress to cancel a state’s Electoral College certification for a Democratic presidential nominee on January 6, 2025. If that happens, it will be an outright calamity.The Constitution needs major surgery, in the form of an amendment that affirmatively protects and preserves all citizens’ right to vote. Many people believe that such foundational language must already exist somewhere in the Constitution; it does not. Were such an amendment in place, the Supreme Court would feel pressed to apply the same rigorous test to laws restricting voters’ access to the ballot that it does to laws implicating the First Amendment concerns of nonprofits, corporations, and deep-pocket donors. But for now, one thing is clear: This Court is not going to protect We the People; its heart lies elsewhere.
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theatlantic.com
The 2020 Olympics: 7 Sports We’re Watching
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.That legendary flame is lit. The 2020 Olympics opened a year late in Tokyo, kicking off with a somber and strange ceremony that spoke to this upsetting moment in history. Below, seven writers and editors catch you up on the sports they plan to watch in the coming weeks of competition.Women’s gymnastics Artistic gymnasts compete both as a team and as individuals—so the women representing the United States in Tokyo will be both teammates and rivals. As they fly and flip and leap and twist and generally defy gravity, they’ll be scored based on two factors: the difficulty of the skills they perform and the execution of those skills (their artistry and overall technique). But don’t watch the judges. These Games will likely be your last opportunity to see Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast and quite possibly the greatest athlete of all time, perform on every apparatus. Biles’s degree of difficulty is so much higher than her fellow gymnasts’ that she could fall in competition—as she did during her beam routine at the U.S. Olympic trials last month—and still come out with a win. — Megan Garber, staff writer covering culture When to watch: Now through August 3 (full schedule) Women’s soccer This morning’s Olympic opening ceremony marked day 868 of the U.S. women’s national team’s equal-pay lawsuit against its employer, U.S. Soccer. The USWNT is also—as tends to be the case around major tournaments—at the center of debate about what it means to represent the United States. The team’s emphatic defeat by Sweden in its tournament opener on Wednesday will be a tough mental test to overcome, but if history tells us anything, it’s that this team will ultimately find fuel in that pressure: The USWNT lives for big moments like these. That DNA, combined with the fact that this particular squad has otherwise been playing some of the team’s most clinical, creative soccer in recent memory, still makes it a strong favorite to win gold this year. — Kelsey J. Waite, copy editor When to watch:The U.S. next plays New Zealand tomorrow, July 24, at 7:30 a.m. ET. (full schedule)Swimming This year’s U.S. Olympic swim team is a story of seasoned veterans and new faces. When the team begins competition on July 24, it will be the first time since 1996 that Michael Phelps—a 28-time Olympic medalist—won’t be swimming. Still, the team has plenty of experienced Olympians, like the five-time gold medalist Katie Ledecky and co-captain Simone Manuel, who has been outspoken about the need for support for people of color in and out of the pool. Joining them are 11 teenagers, including 15-year-old Katie Grimes, the team’s youngest member, and 17-year-old Michael Andrew, who will compete despite his decision not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. topped the swimming-medal count in 2016, but the team faces stiff competition this year from Australia. — Kate Guarino, assistant editor When to watch: July 24 through July 31 (full schedule)Women’s running At the end of the 400-meter finals at last month’s U.S. track-and-field trials, first-place finisher Quanera Hayes and second-place finisher Allyson Felix—who has spoken out against the lack of maternity protections in many athletes’ contracts—celebrated together with their toddlers. In distance running, meanwhile, Aliphine Tuliamuk won last year’s marathon trial, then took advantage of the postponement to have a daughter, whom she fought to bring with her under Japan’s strict COVID-19 protocols for the Games. Any or all of these women could medal—Felix won silver in her event in Rio—but just as notable for fans at home, and for the sport, is the way they are giving the lie to the long-held assumption that professional women’s running is incompatible with motherhood. — Karen Ostergren, deputy copy chiefWhen to watch: The women’s 400-meter races kick off on Monday, August 2, and continue through that Friday; the women’s marathon is on Friday, August 6.Women’s hammer The first thing you need to know about women’s hammer throwing is that it is extremely intense: Competitors spin around in a circle to gain speed, before whipping a nine-pound ball as far as they can, which is usually hundreds of feet. The second thing you need to know about women’s hammer is that it’s the site of a debate about political speech in elite sports, and a dispute between the national and international Olympic committees. Team USA’s Gwen Berry—one of the best female hammer throwers in history—turned her back on the flag during trials last month, saying, “The anthem doesn’t speak for me. It never has.” Berry has indicated that she may protest again in Tokyo. This isn’t against the U.S. Olympic Committee’s rules—but it is against the international rules, and the two bodies haven’t reached a consensus about how to handle protests, if they happen. — Ellen Cushing, special projects editorWhen to watch: July 31 (qualifiers) and August 3 (finals)Sport climbing Most Olympic sports leave little room for error; in climbing, which is making its Games debut, the margins are minuscule. As you watch the bouldering and lead-climbing competitions, know that each delicately placed finger or heel balances on it the full weight of the gold. And then there’s a third category, speed climbing, a zany and enthralling 10-second leap up a 15-foot wall. In order to take home the sport’s first-ever medals, climbers will need to compete in all three events—a controversial combined-scoring choice that one competitor likened to asking a marathon runner to do hurdles. The speed portion could trip up the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra, the obvious favorite for the men’s gold (as explained in this mesmerizing New York Times infographic). On the women’s side, Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret is the one to beat. — Caroline Mimbs Nyce, senior associate editor (and Daily newsletter writer) When to watch: August 3 through August 6 (full schedule)Skateboarding When skateboarding appears in the Olympics for the first time this summer, the Games will be injected with both a jolt of newness and a sense of familiarity. When I was growing up in L.A., skateboarding was constantly in the background of my adolescence: My classmates would skate to school or in the parking lot during lunch. A couple of years ago, I even tried to teach myself how to skate (tried being the key word there). Although I’m certainly hoping that the U.S. skaters win gold this year, the way they’ve talked about the sport has already made them stand out. Athletes such as Alana Smith, Mariah Duran, and Nyjah Huston have emphasized the freedom, friendship, and fun of skating, making it more about community than competition. Plus, have you seen the uniforms? — Tori Latham, copy editor When to watch: July 24 through July 25 and August 3 through August 4 (full schedule)
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theatlantic.com
Welcome to the Olympics That Aren’t Sure Whether They Should Exist
Five years ago, in the closing ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the then–prime minister of Japan popped out of a green tube wearing the red hat of the world’s most amusing plumber. The stunt signified the handoff of the Olympics mantle to Tokyo, and the sight of Shinzo Abe as Mario gave a hint of what Japan might try to project in 2020: Its status a cultural powerhouse whose innovations—such as Nintendo, karate, and anime—shape how people around the globe enjoy themselves every day. Later, a leaked planning document for the 2020 opening ceremony, featuring references to Akira and yet more Mario, hinted that the Tokyo Olympics would be a Games especially devoted to escape and play.[Read: 4 reasons I’m wearing a mask again]That vision didn’t come to pass. The 2020 Olympics became the 2021 Olympics after the coronavirus pandemic killed millions and disrupted life globally. A recovery has come into view—but slow rollouts of vaccines in many parts of the world, and the rising presence of formidable virus variants, threaten to reverse that progress. The typical scandals that seem to surround every Olympics—cost overruns, offensive comments from officials, last-minute sackings—were supercharged by pandemic anxieties, and a majority of Japanese citizens did not want the Tokyo Games to go forward as scheduled.The proceedings nevertheless kicked off today with a mournful mishmash of a ceremony that only emphasized its dark context. “Today, with the world facing great challenges, some are again questioning the power of sport and the value of the Olympic Games,” the Tokyo Olympics organizing-committee president, Seiko Hashimoto, said in one of the evening’s speeches. The ceremony itself—which NBC will air again at 7 p.m. ET—offered tentative, wincing answers to such questioning. It was a celebration suited to an Olympics that many aren’t sure should exist at all.An introductory video reiterated the difficult road that led to this day. A clip showed the jubilance that erupted in 2013 when the International Olympic Committee picked Japan’s bid to host the Games—a bid premised on resilience and recovery from the country’s devastating 2011 earthquake and its aftermath. As the video ticked forward to 2020, images of teams training to compete gave way to images of empty streets and solitary workouts: signs of the pandemic’s effects. When viewers finally were shown inside the stadium, they saw scattered athletes using treadmills or stationary bikes while bathed in a sterile light, casting strange shadows. Isolation, it was clear, would be part of the spectacle.The COVID-19 commentary continued with a stark modern-dance fantasia. Swathed in hospital-white garb, performers shimmied at a distance from one another as metronomical music played: a fitting evocation of how 2020 felt for athletes, and really anyone, trying to stay active in lockdown. Next came a bit of body horror as pods of people tugged at red elastic bands, evoking blood vessels and other, more abstract systems of dependence. “The beating heart of the Olympics,” explained NBC’s commentator, “are its athletes.”The solemn mood only deepened with an aching rendition of Japan’s national anthem by the pop singer Misia, whose beautiful gown graduated from white at her shoulders to colorful ruffles at her feet. A moment of silence then commemorated the victims of COVID-19 and fallen Olympians of the past, specifically including the Israeli athletes killed by hostage takers in 1972 (references to those murders, controversially, had been left out of all previous ceremonies). During that pause, reporters in the stadium said, attendees could hear protesters outside the building objecting to the Olympics for endangering lives in the present.Later, the show did feature some of the patriotic pizzazz and preposterousness expected from Olympics ceremonies. (Who can forget Annie Lennox on a ghost ship in London in 2012?) Percussive music and choreography—including scorching tap dance routines—thrummed through a tribute to traditional Japanese carpentry that also served as a metaphor for modern-day Japanese can-do. A formation of flying drones in the shape of the globe hovered over the stadium in a poignant display of technical prowess. One frenetic segment, essentially a live-action music video, had a body-suited mime imitating the pictograms used to represent the various Olympic sports (such icons were first used at the 1964 Tokyo Games). The night’s best performance matched nimble jazz piano by Hiromi Uehara with lumbering movements by Ichikawa Ebizo, a Kabuki performer who swung sleeves as big as boogie boards.[Read: Genetically engineering the 2020 Olympics mascot]But the moments that drew viewers into rapture were outnumbered by jolts back into distressing reality. More egregiously, the four-hour ceremony devoted multiple minutes to John Lennon’s “Imagine” as arranged by Hans Zimmer and sung by performers around the world, including the overexposed celebrities John Legend and Keith Urban. This set piece could have happened at any Olympics, or any corporate function, and its message would again be hammered home in a lengthy speech by IOC President Thomas Bach: The Olympics had to go on in order to provide unity in a time of isolation.Watching each country’s athletes parade through the stadium, waving flags and (mostly) wearing face masks, it felt natural to consider other explanations for why the Olympics were still happening: national pride, competitive spirit, human stubbornness. When Bach thanked sponsors, whose representatives were among the few people allowed in the venue’s socially distanced stands, it was a reminder that money has played a role in pushing these Games ahead too. But can any motive justify spectacle when it comes with a potential human cost? The most striking image of the night was of the Olympic cauldron, a lovely, flower-shaped sculpture with a mirrored interior. Naomi Osaka, the tennis superstar, lit its flame after looking out at the world’s cameras with just a slight smile–perhaps the only kind that will ever feel right at these Games.
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