“Sports is like a war without the killing,” once said Ted Turner, the founder of CNN whose greatest achievement is probably owning the Atlanta Braves.
Cheering for your country on the field or in the stadium elicits competitive patriotism, giving nations around the world a chance to trample each other to victory without anybody getting shot. The Olympics offer this opportunity on a scale no other sporting competition does.
A National Moment
The 1980 Winter Olympics famously brought us the Miracle on Ice, in which the U.S. hockey team bested its heated Cold War rival the Soviet Union in a 4-3 upset. The youngest team in the competition, the Americans went on to win gold in the final round against Finland after beating the four-in-a-row gold medalist Russians. It was a moment of national ecstasy and pride.
When Sports Illustrated ran a photo of the victory on its cover, it was the only time the magazine used a photo with no type or caption. “It didn’t need it. Everyone in America knew what happened,” photographer Heinz Kluetmeier later said.
Not just in 1980, the Olympics have long been a chance for Americans of all stripes to cheer for the red, white, and blue. Ours is the greatest country on Earth, and we’ve always enjoyed reminding the rest of the world that nobody wins like America does.
Our historical medal counts reflect that, especially in the Summer Olympics. Overall, the United States possessed 2,828 medals before the Tokyo games started this year, 40 percent of which were gold. For perspective, the second-closest country was the former Soviet Union. Its tally of 1,204 medals total is just barely more than the United States’ gold medal count alone.
“When it comes to overall Olympic success, it’s the United States and then everyone else,” NBC concluded.
A Rocky Start for Team USA This Year
But this year’s Olympics seem different, not just in competition success (it’s still early, though it’s been a slow start) but also in the games’ ability to inspire fans at home. U.S. viewership of the opening ceremony was 16.7 million, the lowest in 33 years. It was a 37 percent drop from the 2016 Rio games, and a 59 percent drop from the 2012 games in London.
Some of this cloud surely comes from the year of waiting, since the original 2020 summer games were postponed in a worldwide panic over the Wuhan coronavirus. Athletes’ training schedules and lives in general have been stretched as much as a gymnastics team.
But there also seems to be a general malaise. Day one saw the United States take home no medals, for the first time since 1972. The U.S. women’s soccer team, ranked No. 1 and expected to win gold, lost its first game three-to-nothing against Sweden after taking a knee in political protest at the beginning of the game.
And the U.S. men’s basketball team, which hasn’t lost since 2004, was crushed by France in its opening game. Coach Gregg Popovich had called the American flag “irrelevant” and labeled the United States “an embarrassment to the world” before embarrassing himself in front of the entire world.
In the latest groan-inducing development, gymnastic champion Simone Biles, who leads the American team, dropped out of Tuesday’s competition over a “mental issue.” I can’t imagine the pressure she’s under, and I wish her the best as she works through what must be an exhausting position. But as the rest of the U.S. gymnastics team took silver, ceding gold to the Russians, I couldn’t help but react: really?
Biles’s explanation for dropping out made the move even worse. “I feel like I’m also not having as much fun,” she reportedly said. “This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself, and it felt like I was still doing for other people.” Since when have the Olympics been more about individual athletes than about representing their countries well?
I’m just as disappointed by Team U.S.A.’s lagging start as the girl next door, and I sincerely hope the next week and a half see them sprint to resounding victories. Meanwhile, we should loudly cheer the patriotic Americans who have competed respectably and won accolades. But I’m not surprised by the disappointing performances either.
How would you feel if you were competing for a country you were told was irredeemably evil? Or being led by a coach who used his platform to disparage the American flag and the entire country itself? As a member of the audience, are you less inspired by the Olympics this time around?
After a yearlong assault on patriotism, history, and American values, many Americans’ patriotic streaks have grown timid. Others who do still proudly and unequivocally cheer for the U.S. of A. are frustrated at being represented on the world stage by a soccer captain who cares more about her paycheck than her country, and an incoherent septuagenarian in the White House.
Last summer, Americans saw leftists insisting their country must be evil and racist to its core, and threatening to burn down their businesses if they didn’t agree loudly enough. Since then, they’ve seen schools funded by their taxes try to shame their kids for their race and teach them boys can be girls.
They’ve heard voices on the news call seeing the American flag “disturbing,” and an Olympic alternate say his “goal” was to win the Olympics so he could “burn a US flag on the podium.” It’s little wonder the typical rah-rah patriotism surrounding the Olympics is a bit confused this year. And it’s just as predictable that malaise corresponds with shockingly mediocre performances from some of the athletes who have helped create it.
I sincerely hope Team U.S.A. turns its performance around before the Tokyo games conclude — and they very well might. Even more, I hope the country they represent can find its lost national pride and cohesion, and rally around the promises of liberty, toughness, independence, and victory America has always given the world.