The Olympics As American Allegory (and Why They Matter)

I have not followed the 2018 Winter Olympics closely, which is no fault of the Olympics. I haven’t followed any sport closely since Lance Armstrong ruined professional cycling for me. I’ve tuned in a bit here and there, though, long enough to watch Chloe Kim and the other snowboarders defy gravity or to catch a few seconds of some middle-aged lady skiing the halfpipe like my grandmother.

For the most part my Olympics engagement boils down to skimming the sports page each morning on my way to the box scores, where the medal count by country appears. As of the morning that I’m writing this, the U.S. is in fourth place with 21 total medals, trailing leader Norway by 16 medals. Come on, America! You’re gonna let the Norway-ites beat you? Norway isn’t even a real place, but rather a conspiracy by the Deep State to embarrass America! You know, like Mississippi.

The low medal count leads me to leap to conclusions: more evidence that we’ve squandered our global lead in research and development; more evidence that the U.S. can’t be bothered with supporting our amateur athletes; more evidence of our collective downward spiral into mediocrity.

The medal count represents none of these things, really. Wikipedia claims that over the entire history of the modern Olympics, America’s winter athletes have brought home just over 10 percent of the number of medals as their summer counterparts. We’re just not a winter games people, apparently. All of that ranting of mine about medal count is no more than battle scars from a cold war childhood, where the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviet Union served as proxy for geopolitical struggle. But it’s 2018 now, and I’m dragging politics into an arena whose participants don’t care about such things, at least not overtly.

Take snowboard big air medalist Kyle Mack, for example. What landed the 20 year-old on the podium was a trick called a “frontside 1440 bloody Dracula,” which involves spinning high in the air while making out with brooding teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson. Here’s what Mack said about that moment:

I was at the top, contemplating whether I could do the bloody 14 or do a tail grab, but bringing style into snowboarding is the thing I’ve always worked on….before I dropped in for my second run, I was like, I’m doing this for snowboarding.

Not for country–for snowboarding. And yet, when Mack won the silver he proudly raised the American flag above his head before literally wrapping himself in it. Keeping in mind that I know nothing about Kyle Mack beyond that few minutes of footage, the moment struck me as quintessentially American. “Do the best that you can for no other reason than you should” seemed to be the message, and he wasn’t the only Olympian who walked that particular talk.

It’s a message that permeates all sports but particularly the Olympic games, where few athletes are likely to grow rich from their given sports. No 100 million dollar contracts await the American curling teams, for example, nor can participants in luge, cross country skiing, or biathlon expect big money. Those folks simply go out there and get it done because it’s their passion, and if they find themselves on the podium then they let us warm ourselves in their reflected glory: We did this, add another one to our medal count in tomorrow’s box score. We’re proud of them, and for that moment at least they’re proud to be one of us. E Pluribus Unum–out of many one.

Conversely, this is how disgraced Olympic medalist Lance Armstrong destroyed professional cycling for me. Armstrong’s 2000 bronze medal at the Sydney games, which was stripped from him 13 years later, is the least of the cyclist’s achievements but hey, I needed a segue.

I’d been a fan of professional bicycle racing since my teenage years, when the only way to follow that predominantly European sport was in the pages of imported magazines. Television coverage was limited to a couple of hours per year, a little more than that in Olympic years. Prior to the rise of Greg LeMond during the ’80s, America’s credibility on the international cycling stage was even lower than its Winter Olympics medal count–even lower than the average American’s interest in professional cycling.

The last of LeMond’s three Tour de France wins came in 1990. His career was winding down in 1993, the year that 22 year-old Lance Armstrong grabbed cycling’s World Championship jersey. The young Texan seemed poised to carry America’s cycling baton well into the ’90s.

You know the rest of the story: Armstrong was stricken with both cancer and Sheryl Crow, yet went on to win an unprecedented seven Tours de France. The weird European sport I’d loved since I was a kid suddenly went mainstream. Middle aged men blew their kids’ tuitions on carbon fiber bikes they could barely ride and stuffed their beer guts into spandex cycling jerseys. They argued about the quality of Phil Liggett’s color commentary and bragged about Americans, meaning Lance, being the greatest of all time. Never mind Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx, Bernard “The Badger” Hinault, and Miguel “Big Mig” Indurain–the only three riders to win the Tour five times each in the hundred years prior to Armstrong’s anomalous run. Never mind LeMond’s three wins. No, it was all about Armstrong, the individual who did the best he could for no other reason than he should, and now we all warmed ourselves in his reflected glory.

“There’s something wrong,” I protested. “Nobody’s ever won more than five tours. Not the Cannibal. Not the Badger. Not Big Mig.” I said it when Lance got to three victories, then four, then five. At six I stopped watching, disgusted that Armstrong was clearly cheating even though I had no evidence to back that up.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” the bandwagon fans declared. “Lance is a phenomenon! Battling cancer raised his pain threshold beyond any the peloton has ever seen! His training is the best! His diet is the best! His bike is the best!” They said everything but “You hate America and don’t believe in American exceptionalism,” but I inferred it.

When Armstrong was exposed as not just a cheater but an arrogant bully some took the opportunity to gloat, and much like reflected glory their gloating took the form of reflected shame: This is who Americans really are. They lack integrity. They lack honor. Their greed and ambition skews their moral compasses. They’ll do anything to win. Armstrong was stripped of his seven yellow jerseys and his Olympic bronze, his early excuses ranging in tone from “I didn’t do anything” to “it’s only cheating if you get caught.” Lance Armstrong disgraced his team, his sport, his country, and himself, and for no other reason than to win.

Not everyone is in it to win it, though. Take Elizabeth Swaney, the “Hungarian” halfpipe skier whose trademark move is staying upright on her skis until she reaches the bottom of the pipe.  Swaney is another kind of American success story, one that involves neither cheating (like Armstrong) nor years of dedication to one’s sport (like Mack).

She’s a hard worker, there’s no doubt about that: Her degrees from Berkley and Harvard attest to that, as do the insane hours she worked to raise money to support her Olympic dream. But rather than training for several thousand hours in whatever sport best suited her natural gifts, Swaney let her talent for navigating bureaucracy lead the way. She chose halfpipe based on its points system for Olympics qualification, calculating that if she simply didn’t fall down in enough international events she’d accrue enough points. Knowing she’d never make the American team, Swaney chose to compete for Hungary, the home country of her grandparents.

So she successfully wound her way through various loopholes and arrived in South Korea, where a group of elite athletes did the best they could for no other reason than they should and one bunny slope bureaucrat shushed her way down the halfpipe because she wanted to be an Olympian. Some see Swaney’s story as an embarrassment, others as the quintessential American success story. Swaney legally navigated the parameters of the system, doing just enough work to get what she wanted. I find it hard to bask in the reflected glory of a bureaucratic triumph, but to each their own.

Meanwhile, over on the snowboarding halfpipe, 17 year-old American Chloe Kim already had a lock on the gold going into her third and last run. She could have Swaneyed her way down the course and still topped the podium but instead she laid it all out, putting up her best–no, the best–run of the Olympic games. Here’s what she said afterward: “Going into my third run I knew that I was taking home the gold, but I just knew that I wasn’t going to be completely satisfied taking home the gold and knowing that I could do better.”

So there they are, three distinct flavors of Americanism expressed via sports analogies:

  • It isn’t cheating unless you get caught
  • It doesn’t matter whether you’re actually qualified as long as you get what you want
  • It doesn’t matter whether you win if you know you could’ve done better.

It’s almost impossible to isolate these conclusions from their current political corollaries. If you believe it isn’t cheating unless you get caught, then the possibility of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia is likely a non-story for you. If eking out a bureaucratic victory even though you’re unqualified is your idea of success, then an Electoral College win that sends the losing candidate to the White House isn’t just acceptable, but rather evidence of masterful strategy.

But I don’t think that either of those demonstrate the American spirit that most of us choose to embrace. We believe ourselves to be a “go big or go home” culture, the kind of people who put it all into our third jump because that’s just what we do. We choose to do things not because they are easy but because they are hard, to paraphrase the Marilyn-doing JFK. We launch cars into space when a ton of cement would serve the same purpose. We look at a Nacho Cheese Dorito and we see a taco shell.

Tracking medal count is a lazy sort of patriotism, like brandishing a flag pin, sporting a MAGA hat, or hugging a nearby flag. Those empty gestures require neither effort nor commitment.

It’s the stories underpinning those medals that matter. Striving to be the best that you can possibly be for no other reason than that’s just what you do is the one thing that is within your control that you can do to actually make America great again. Watching Elizabeth Swaney putter down the halfpipe under a foreign nation’s flag inspires no feeling within me, but Chloe Kim and Kyle Mack soaring through the sky when it doesn’t matter because that’s all that matters, that’s the American greatness to which we should all aspire.

Categories: op-ed

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