The Tokyo 2020 Olympics shows its irony immediately, just by virtue of the name. In the stubbornly maintained moniker (the games are being held in 2021) lies only the surface of the unusual circumstances and reactions surrounding this year’s Summer Olympic Games.
For Gen Z, these Olympic Games have been the source of extensive commentary, with #TokyoOlympics on TikTok having already garnered 3 billion views. But despite the extensive viewing, Gen Z seems to have an odd relationship with watching the Games.
Gen Z doesn’t know where, when, or how to watch the Olympic games.
Director of Strategy at JUV Juan Jose Amaya (he/they) cites confusion, saying that they are unsure of how to stream the Olympics.
“If anything I’m going to end up having to watch highlights and not watch live just because I don’t think it was made very apparent to me who’s streaming on what services.”
Amaya goes on to explain their further concerns with the democratization of Olympic viewing, and it’s unsurprising. Across every interviewee, none felt confident that they knew a platform on which they could stream Olympic content, let alone for free.
Beyond confusion with platforms, Gen Zers cite time concerns as reasons they are unable to view. One Junior Partner at JUV says that “when it gets time to the Olympics, I’m usually only watching highlights. I do not live in a world where I have the privilege or time to watch like 80 million different events.”
The global nature of the Olympics only exacerbates this sentiment. Marianne Purru (she/her), a consultant based in Estonia, says that given the time difference she typically only chooses to watch one event.
Identity and social justice plays a role in whether or not Gen Zers watch at all.
Junior Partner Malachi Sutton (he/him), goes further, explaining that he doesn’t watch the games because he thinks it’s pointless.
“It’s just a cash grab for first-world countries to showcase the resources that they have over other countries. I just think it’s pointless at the end of the day because it’s you showcasing the privilege you have that other countries don’t.”
Molly Kilbourne (she/they), a Senior Partner at JUV, says that their identity has also played a role in whether or not they have sought out the games.
“Being a genderqueer person, I didn’t think about sports being very influential, but I really enjoy watching sports.”
Kilbourne explains that they are a camp counselor at an international camp and that seeing the students from various countries celebrate their own and each other’s victories is very exciting.
But despite Kilbourne’s excitement for Gen Alpha, a pattern seems to emerge in Gen Z — watching the Olympics is not a priority.
This begs the question – if Gen Z is so unsure on when (or if) to watch the games, where are the 3 billion views on TikTok coming from?
The answer lies in the extension of Olympic dialogue to something far more than the sports themselves.
While the mainstream media has largely focused on “controversies” such as the cardboard anti-sex beds in the Olympic Village (later debunked) Gen Z has entered into broader dialogues surrounding social justice concerns within the games.
Gen Z has complicated feelings about nationalism related to the Olympics.
The first of these conversations is with regards to nationalism, especially as it pertains to countries without certain privileges like the US and other “first-world countries” that typically dominate the games and use it as a signifier of their own strength and prowess.
Malachi notes that this is problematic for reasons beyond surface nationalism, saying “it puts critical situations for other countries in the background while first-world countries get to celebrate their victories.”
This becomes even truer in a COVID world, where protests in Japan emerged against the games being held at all given the spread of the Delta variant. The focus on “glory” for individual countries neglects the reality of an event like the Olympics, which brings together people from different countries, and thus different landscapes of COVID.
Supporting individuals rather than countries is key to addressing these concerns.
For interviewees in the US, the solution is focusing on the individual athletes, not the country they represent whatsoever.
“I think of individuals and their stories and timelines and experiences […] and if it happens to fall under the United States, okay, fine. But if it’s Nigeria, Argentina, South Africa, Chile, whoever, I’m going to go crazy for that individual,” says Kilbourne.
One content contributor corroborates this claim, saying, “Oh my god, I’m cheering for [Usain Bolt]. I want to see him smash another record. He’s from Jamaica. So the way I see it is I’m watching athletes compete, and I’m cheering for the athletes I want to see.”
For them, there’s no other option, as they don’t see the sport-based prowess of the United States as exemplary of anything laudable that’s happening at home.
”I don’t see a connection between what the US is doing and how bad they’ve been to a few people doing flips tricks and hitting a ball.”
People from countries other than the US find value in nationalism, saying it defies expectations for their countries.
The relationship with nationalism, though, changes character for those with national identities other than American.
Purru says that being from somewhere like Estonia, “[the] population is 1 million people, so we rarely even get athletes who qualify for the Olympics. It’s not that we have a dozen to choose from. So when one of us fulfills the requirement, it’s a national celebration.”
She explains that her home country’s athletes don’t hold as much celebrity status, so rather than the individual, “it’s more just looked at as a whole, like, Estonia is going to the Olympics. It’s very strongly linked with our country and our heritage.”
Amaya goes further, saying that, for them, being from Colombia, a country in the global South means that nationalism is actually an important tool for progress, especially as someone currently residing in the US.
Amaya explains that “[their] support for [their] home country directly challenges American exceptionalism,” as it defies the expectations set for the global South by the Western paradigm.
”Winning and [Colombia] getting a medal in anything directly challenges the position we were put into as a country from the global South and defies the expectation as someone from the global South.”
They say that it is affirming to see other athletes doing the same and distancing themselves from the US, citing Naomi Osaka competing for Japan as an example.
US nationalism doesn’t challenge exceptionalism in the same way, Amaya explains because the expectation for the US is that they will be dominant. After all, the resources and privileges of the nation ensure that their athletes start from a few steps ahead.
Because of this, Amaya poses an important question — “If they are winning in the name of American excellence, what does that excellence stand for?”
Gen Z is tired of how athletes are treated outside of the value of their performances.
The truth is exemplified in the reality of marginalized athletes outside of the moments in which they are competing, and a country that broadly does not support them has temporarily afforded them glory. As Amaya says, “When those Black athletes come back, how are you treating them?”
The honest answer is ‘not well,’ a discussion most demonstrated by the case of Sha’Carri Richardson, a runner who was disqualified from the Olympics after testing positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Although the narrative in the popular media has broadly been that ‘rules are rules,’ Gen Z has a different take.
Kilbourne explains that “if you’re ignoring [race or gender] then your opinions are going to be skewed on this situation.”
Amaya corroborates, saying that “the stigma [marijuana] has against Black people and the stigma that it has around the world… I think that’s what informed that decision [to disqualify Sha’Carri].”
When discussing the issue, Gen Zers brought up the double standard exemplified by this case as the red herring that what happened to Sha’Carri was a product of misogynoir, not a fair and equal application of the rules.
Our generation recognizes a clear double standard in how marginalized athletes are treated versus their white counterparts.
One content contributor says that you can make arguments about ‘rule-following.’
“We get Michael Phelps, and I think Ryan Lochte, retweeting a picture of them winning the race in Rio saying ‘we were all high.’ And everyone had nothing to say? Like it was no big deal? What happened to their drug tests?”
White athletes getting away with discussions of marijuana isn’t unique to these swimmers. Twitter blew up after USWNT member Megan Rapinoe discussed CBD as a part of her training regimen shortly after Sha’Carri’s disqualification.
The difference between all of these cases is identity. Malachi Sutton explains that the Olympics shine a light on a reality of Blackness in society: ”Society loves Black bodies when they’re at the behest of white people, but they don’t like Black bodies when they’re in the participation of uprise against white supremacy.”
This unequal application of the rules is clearly demonstrative of this. The US celebrates Black athleticism but doesn’t show up in the same way for Black athletes.
So is there any fixing it? Views are mixed. Kilbourne explains that “There’s no better time or place to be using the Olympic case study to dissect and discuss [these sorts of issues].”
However, whether or not these discussions are fruitful is still hard to say. Sutton says, “There’s no fixing it because in order to come to face with the social justice of Black issues people would then have to acknowledge their own privilege, and I don’t think they’re willing to do so.”
Regardless, it’s clear that Gen Z is here for athletes – we just believe they deserve better. As Sutton puts it, “I can still point out the wrongs of the Olympics and still go on to support the Black athletes within it… At the end of the day I’m still going to support Naomi, I’m still going to support the Black women running in track and field events, I’m still going to be there for support. I just think at the same time [these issues] need to be addressed.”
JUV Consulting is a Gen Z collective that works with companies to create purpose-driven and authentic marketing campaigns that engage young audiences. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to learn how to reach Gen Z.