As a former Olympic athlete, I can tell you from experience that the Olympic Games have much more in common with The Hunger Games than anyone would want to admit.
I connect with the inhumanity of The Hunger Games because I’ve been there, as a luge competitor at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. No, I didn’t get sucked into the depths of an artificial lake, like the character played by Jennifer Lawrence. But I did get sucked into the rafters of an artificially manufactured tube of glare ice, only to come crashing down in the second run of my Olympic moment.
The grandeur of the opening ceremonies of The Hunger Games is designed to mask the cruelty of the competition itself. The Olympic opening ceremonies serve a similar purpose. Like the kids representing the districts of Panem, each nation’s athletes are trotted around a massive arena like prize ponies, shrouded in the patriotic glory of their particular flag. The carefully orchestrated pageantry is misleading, telling us that the Olympics are a celebration of the human capacity to achieve, to overcome obstacles, and that the world’s best athletes represent something bigger than themselves.
But make no mistake: for the global elite, the Olympics are an investment—and one with a rapidly growing price tag. At the London Games, the cost of the opening ceremonies alone was a whopping $42.3 million. This year, Russia will shell out more than $51 billion for the two-week event, making these Games more expensive than all previous Winter Olympics combined.
In The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence is the sacrificial lamb of District 12. As one of the prize ponies of the US team, I served a similar purpose for the Turin Games. Groomed from the tender age of 11, I spent my childhood pursuing Olympic glory, which epitomizes the American dream of merit-based success.
Looking back now, I finally understand an experience I couldn’t quite grasp as a child. I see that the beautiful illusion I once searched for is a fabrication, the creation of ingenious marketing mechanisms by those who run the Olympic show. I once hoped that the patriotic glory I was told so much about would give meaning to the physical and emotional pain of my athletic struggle. I grew accustomed to gritting my teeth under the strain of various forms of pain: the daily grind of hours of elite-level training, and the toll it exacted on my developing body; the pain I felt upon slamming into a wall of ice at 80 miles per hour; the biting winter cold that whipped across my thinly protected, spandex-clad form while sitting atop a frozen winter landscape. Then there was the emotional pain and fear, which took on various forms: the constant fear of bodily harm that scarred my mind, just as my body was scarred by more than a hundred stitches; the fear that I would disappoint those I loved and those who had invested time and money in my athletic career. There was the pain of failure, of hope swallowed by frequent defeat. Then there was the gendered pain: that of an adolescent female standing in underwear in the glass cube of sport science, each area of fat accumulation clinically pinched by a man with metal tongs. I once hoped that by withstanding all this pain, there would one day be a payoff, even if only an emotional one.