Americans Are at Our Ugliest During the Olympics
I did something on Monday night I am reasonably sure no one else in Philadelphia did: I watched the Los Angeles Kings defeat the New Jersey Devils to win the Stanley Cup. Philadelphia can be odd that way—all cities root for the home team, of course, but here there’s almost a feeling that if one of our teams isn’t in it, it isn’t happening, no matter what the event. Although who knows? The way the Phillies are playing, we all may be scouting around for a new squad to get behind soon enough.
I’m not a big hockey fan, though I do have a cherished memory of wearing a Flyers jersey at age 10 and belting out a communal chorus of “God Bless America” back in my parents’ brick twin when the Flyers first won the Cup. My brothers were always the hockey fanatics; we even had a hockey net in the basement, which was especially interesting when one considers said basement was about the size of a dining room table. But when you’re a kid, who cares about such things?
Anyway, back to the game. I was watching the Kings because my brother Pat is an absolute lunatic for them, which of course makes no sense, given that, like me, he is a born and bred Philadelphian who I believe has never even been to Los Angeles. But during the NHL playoffs this year, I found his peculiar (and occasionally frightening) passion for the Kings catching, and soon found myself hopping up and down and screaming at the set during the occasional four-on-three. I’d call him in between periods to discuss how the game was going. And when the Kings won it all on Monday—their first Cup in more than 40 years of existence—I was as thrilled for Pat as I was for them.
This is the beauty of sports, which people who follow them know intrinsically, and people who don’t will never, can never, understand. There is a deep bond shared among sports fans rooting for the same team, a unifying force that can make people who otherwise can’t stand each other hug after a score as if one of them has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Every once in a while this dynamic plays out on a national scale. Instead of each of us hunkering down behind our local squads, we band together as a nation to rally behind the U.S. team at the Ryder Cup golf matches, or U.S. soccer during the World Cup, or the Williams sisters at Wimbledon.
But nowhere do we do this more lustily than through the Olympics, and especially the Summer Olympics, because the Americans always do better at the Summer Games than the Winter Games.
Like most of us, I have many great memories of watching the Olympics. I can vividly remember rooting for Bruce Jenner (pre-Frankenstein facelift) in 1976; the amazing moment of the “Miracle on Ice” when the U.S. hockey team won the gold against Finland in 1980; gymnast Kerri Strug sticking an incredible landing on one foot (her other ankle was badly sprained) in 1996, clinching the team gold. And then there’s the pomp and pageantry of it all—in a jaded political culture where the divisions among us seem more pronounced than ever, there is something divine about a shared national moment where we all tear up as we watch an Olympian cry his eyes out, watching the slow raising of the flag as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays.
But I also remember something else: Nadia Comaneci.
Nadia was a gymnast from Romania at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. A wisp of a girl, as most gymnasts are, she seemed almost painfully shy, which only added to her telegenic charm. She won three gold medals that year, and became the first female gymnast to ever score a perfect 10 (the scoreboards weren’t even equipped to display a 10, since no one thought anyone could do it). People were agog at both her talent and her pixie-ish humility. When she stood on the medal platform and the first strains of the Romanian national anthem filled the ear, people who had never even heard of Romania wept. Openly. It was a kind of Susan Boyle moment, a recognition of watching someone whose work ethic and skill got them to a shining moment we all got to share.
All of which explains why I won’t be watching a minute of the Olympics next month.
NBC and its octopus tentacles of networks will broadcast some 5,000 hours of Olympic coverage between July 27th and August 12th, bloated with slick graphics and emotionally manipulative athlete profiles. Bob Costas will sit on a set resembling a den from the Pottery Barn catalog and entertain assorted “analysts” commenting on everything and anything going on in London (is there any doubt a story on Will and Kate is in the offing?); even Ryan Seacrest, the oily gekko of American Idol, is coming on board, no doubt to offer incisive commentary on what the Kardashians wore to the diving trials.
But it’s not the overblown theatrics of the modern Olympics that has me tuning out. It’s the plain fact that we have lost, in the zealous xenophobia that now defines America globally, any interest in the Nadia Comanecis of the world. I can’t remember the last time I watched an Olympic telecast and saw a gold medal ceremony featuring someone who wasn’t from the U.S. In 1976, Hanni Wenzel from the tiny country of Liechtenstein won a gold for skiing, the first one ever won for her country in its history. I seem to recall there was a slight delay in the medal ceremony, because no one had thought to bring the Liechtenstein national anthem. But when she stood on the podium and the first strings of that anthem began to play, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Or my house, either. Because that’s what the Olympics should be about—the shining moment of triumph, yes. But something more than that. Much, much more than that.
The Olympics represent the ultimate in sportsmanship, a coming together across the globe of athletes from different cultures, with different beliefs and often very different views, who all agree, by mutual consent, to put all of that aside and simply compete, side by side, for personal glory and national pride. But somewhere along the way we as Americans lost sight of this, and turned it into “Us Against the World,” a Bruce Willis action movie set against the backdrop of track and field. Watch any event packed with American fans and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Every time I hear that awful chant of “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” my skin crawls. Can you remember seeing any other nation’s fans doing that? Other nations’ fans are passionate, yes. They cheer for their teams, yes. But we’re the ones who always have to push the envelope, who have to sneer and jeer, who have to muscle our way into the camera shot and declare “We’re number one,” even when we’re number eight. We’ve become the classless hooligans who always ruin the otherwise fun and spirited party, because we can’t stand it when the attention isn’t on us. As fans we’ve become the equivalent of a bunch of five-year-olds, pouting when we don’t win and mugging and finger-pointing to the opposition when we do, the tableau of Chickie’s and Pete’s unfurled for the whole world to see. It is, in a word, appalling. The Ugly American at his most ugly.
I now find myself in the ridiculous position of being so ashamed of my country on this particular international stage that I now actively root against the Americans. Because this isn’t patriotism anymore—it’s imperialist bullshit, a relentless drumbeat of “We’re America, and the rest of you suck,” aided and abetted by the billion-dollar U.S. Olympic complex, Bob Costas the orchestra conductor waving the baton and leading the jingoism, all set to Yanni. Of this I can assure you: The only national anthem you’ll hear played during the orgy of coverage over those three weeks will be ours.
No thanks. I’ll read the results online and then strategically search for video clips to avoid the smug American superiority complex as much as possible. And hopefully, somehow, I’ll be able to find a YouTube clip of a gold medalist crying, as she listens to the national anthem of Liechtenstein.