For a few decades now, I’ve hated the Olympics. They are the United Nations of sports — corrupt, anti-Semitic, hypocritical, self-important and a giant waste of money. It galls me when the Games are held in unfree countries, giving them a propaganda moment and plenty of dough. Like the U.N., however, the Olympics come in handy if only to allow decent people to rise to the occasion.
To carry the analogy, having Lilly King denounce the Russia dopers (“It’s incredible, just winning a gold medal, and knowing I did it clean”) is the next best thing to denouncing the former Soviet Union, as the late ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick did in response to the shoot-down of Flight 007 that killed 269 people, including 61 Americans. (“Soviet officials regularly behave as though truth were only a function of force and will. It is depressing to consider a world in which a major nation equipped with the most powerful modern weapons believes it has a sovereign right to fire on a commercial airliner lost over its territory.”) Granted, the stakes are nowhere near as high now, but denouncing state-sponsored lies never goes out of fashion. Donald Trump cannot manage to condemn Vladimir Putin’s egregious behavior, but at least we have a 19-year-old American who understands right from wrong.
Sure, it’s not exactly Jesse Owens upsetting Adolf Hitler’s showcase for his Aryan lies, but seeing a diverse and tolerant cross-section of America excel while rooting for one another is a satisfying rebuke to the alt-right haters.
It is interesting, by the way, that Trump rarely publicly praises our Olympic athletes. I mean, is he tired of winning so much? It does at some level undermine his narcissistic worldview — the United States is a crappy country that only he can save. Actually, Americans have the capacity for greatness, which has nothing to do with wealth, in sports and whatever else they set out to master. But I digress.
It is oh so fitting that fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is the first American Olympic athlete to compete in a hijab. She declared, “In this particular political climate in the history of this country, it is groundbreaking to have a Muslim woman on the U.S team.” (I guess if it were up to Trump, he wouldn’t let her back into the United States from Rio.) Bleacher Report tells us:
Even veterans of multiple Olympic Games have been entranced by Muhammad—who came in second behind Michael Phelps in a vote among U.S. athletes of who should carry the American flag at the opening ceremony. They’ve pointed at her as she’s walked through the village and whispered, Hey, there’s the girl in the scarf.
“Ibtihaj can’t go more than five feet in the athletes’ village without being stopped by someone from another country,” said her older brother, Qareeb Muhammad. “She’s come to represent something very powerful: that you can overcome challenges and shatter perceptions through sports.” . . .
After a saber match in the round of 16 she declared, “I love my teammates and I believe in them. I want us to win a medal. More than anything, I want us to do it for our country.”
And now, as someone with a child as old as many of the Olympians, I cannot help but be overjoyed for the parents and families. They come, often in groups with other relatives and friends, all decked out in matching T-shirts with the athlete’s name emblazoned on their chests. More than anyone, the parents know that for their child this is the culmination of years of training, thousands of hours (and dollars) of coaching — from pre-sunrise mornings to late nights, through the injuries and teen drama. The parents, like the coaches, have been there every step and stroke of the way. In victory, they invariably seem overwhelmed, never suggesting that they take their child’s excellence for granted. And like parents everywhere who have gone to concerts, sporting events and school plays, they’ll be there to pick up the pieces if things do not go according to plan. Few with children of their own can help but empathize — and root for the parents as much as the kids.
Well, truth be told, it’s never been the Olympics so much as the International Olympic Committee that has raised my ire. In any event, somewhere between Lilly King’s moral clarity, Simone Biles’s magnificent performance (with veteran gymnast and Jewish American Aly Raisman hugging her for support while waiting for the scores), Michael Phelps’s superhuman accomplishments, Simone Manuel’s eloquent comments (after becoming the first African American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event) and Ibtihaj Muhammad’s effusive expressions of patriotism and teamwork, I became an Olympic softy all over again.
Come on, how often do we see — in concrete and highly entertaining form — ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things while providing lessons in dedication, pursuit of excellence, fairness and tolerance? My only complaint is that it cannot be an ongoing distraction all the way until Election Day.
For now, back to the archery.