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.