We are supposed to give the referee the ball and walk away, humbly. Our winning-is-the-only-thing reputation having preceded us, we need to do everything but apologize for being this good.
Consider Tariq Panja, a British sports reporter for Bloomberg, who asked a straightforward question Saturday afternoon to Ashton Eaton, Missy Franklin and the other perma-grin gold medalists the United States Olympic Committee trotted out for its Our-Medal-Count-Rocks news conference.
“There’s something about the discourse of being the greatest country in the world,” Panja began. “Michael Phelps used it before the Olympic Games. For people here it’s a bit of a strange thing to say. We don’t really talk about our country like you guys do.
“So do you genuinely think the USA is the best in the world and do you take that with you onto the track?”
Patrick Sandusky, the USOC’s chief of communications, couldn’t help himself. “From the gentleman who comes from a country with the word ‘Great’ in front of the title — Great Britain.”
Bam — take that.
Afterward, Panja was accosted by a couple of USOC media attaches for his “low blow” during the news conference — essentially sending a tweet, that read in part, “A lot of flag-waving going on here.”
Yes, there was flag-waving of a sort. That’s what usually happens at nation-sponsored press events, be it Italy, Tunisia or Britain, a brilliant host that has kicked some royal be-hind at these Olympics, winning more medals than any British team in history.
The United States shouldn’t apologize for cleaning up at the podium in these Games and blowing by China in the medal totals the past few days. But neither do its athletes and the USOC brass here have to gloat in a way that comes across as, “We’re American Exceptionalists, take it or leave it, jack.”
Frankly, the American athletes here deserve credit for walking that fine line. They have to remember the ugly-American sentiment after the posing and preening from Maurice Greene and the track crew at the Sydney Games in 2000.
Not every athlete from every country in London deals with that delicate balancing act.
As a Dutch female journalist said, “If Usain Bolt were American and said the same things and acted in that goofy arrogant way that we all laugh at because he’s Jamaican, I wonder if he wouldn’t be criticized for rubbing it in, for being an American jerk.”
Many are in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t predicament.
On Fox News last week, a segment entitled, “New Concerns Over Patriotism at the Olympics” was pathetic. Because Gabby Douglas competed in a pink leotard and the U.S. swim team wore gray warmups without an American-flag design, the U.S. delegation was accused of being “soft” on issue of national pride.
“What we’re seeing is this is kind of soft, anti-American feeling, that Americans can’t show our exceptionalism,” said the conservative radio host David Webb. “And, frankly, if they are offended about our showing our exceptionalism, they have that right. And I don’t care. And neither do most Americans. That’s a fact.”
Webb, in his warped logic, added, “We’ve lost that jingoistic feeling.”
Really, does the United States have to win? Doesn’t that fly in the face of the ancient Olympic ideal that Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, co-opted after hearing a sermon in London prior to 1896, that the winning doesn’t matter as much as trying your absolute best?
“Yeah, we like to come in first,” Larry Probst, the USOC president, said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. This is a competition. And I think it’s absolutely great that we’re leading in the medal count, both on golds and in total medals — the last time we won both was in Athens.”
He added, “I like to hear the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ a lot.”
Nice, Larry. Because presumably that means he likes Lee Greenwood’s song and, oh yeah, also keeps his job if they play the national anthem a lot.
The USOC brass also mentioned something about all the fourth-place athletes that inspire. But they clearly didn’t inspire Probst or the USOC enough to bring them to the news conference and speak on the character-building lessons learned from giving your best but still being beaten out for a bronze. Only golden smiles on the dais, because as Phil Knight powerfully said on his Nike billboard 12 years ago in Sydney, “You don’t win silver; you lose gold.”
I would have loved to hear from Tyson Gay, who has run 100 meters faster than any human being in the history of the universe, except Usain Bolt, and how it really feels to leave Beijing and London without a medal to show for your absolute best effort.
Probst gave a glimpse into the worries over anti-American sentiment abroad the U.S. team might have faced. “I was a little nervous how the crowd would react to our team,” he said he was thinking prior to the United States being introduced to loud cheers and applause in the Opening Ceremonies.
The collective feeling after that reception was: “Wow, they love us. In their eyes, we’re not the big, bad USA.”
The bottom line is this: You will never please everyone representing the United States at the Olympic Games. But if you do win, don’t rub it in. Don’t come across as the entitled champion who hails from a well-financed superpower. Act like you’ve been there before, because most of the world’s athletes haven’t.
That’s a mind-set both American and exceptional.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.