Sunday, February 25, 2018
The American Idea
As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
My thoughts are scattered. I’m completely out of rhythm. The NFL isn’t gone completely, but it’s napping. Months remain before the start of the NBA and NHL playoffs. Baseball’s spring training has yet to begin. The madness that college basketball injects into March is a month away. The next tennis major is the French Open…in May. Tiger Woods is playing again, but he’s flirting with the cut line, not the leaderboard. That would be concerning if The Master’s, like apparently everything else of consequence in sports, wasn’t weeks (at least) into the future. I am, like most sports fans, wandering and hopelessly lost in the mid-winter’s dark and lifeless forest.
A voice from the beyond: What about the Olympics?
Me: “The what? Oh yeah, riiiiight.”
That’s unfair sarcasm. It’s just that, well, the Winter Games are, I think, a peculiar oddity for most Americans. The Summer Olympics are more relatable. Every high school has a track, a volleyball court and a soccer team. Backyards are routinely adorned with a basketball hoop. Neighborhoods have community centers with tennis courts, swimming pools and golf courses. Who has access to a ski jump, frozen halfpipe or a luge course? How many people own a curling stone? Raise your hand if you’ve landed a triple axel. Nobody? Wait, there’s one hand up in the back. Filthy liar.
Nevertheless, the Olympics always matter – both for national pride and, inevitably, political maneuvering. Baby boomers experienced Mexico City in 1968 and Montreal in 1976. As a member of Generation-X, the first Olympics I remember, the 1980 Winter Games at Lake Placid, New York, produced the greatest moment in American sports history – the United States Hockey Team’s “Miracle on Ice.” It mattered, and remains so significant, because a ragtag bunch of American college kids beat the Soviet Union’s best. It was Rocky v. Drago or, more consequentially, democracy v. communism on ice.
The sports-politics Olympic collision continued with the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games. The Soviets returned the favor by skipping the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. The Cold War was chilly indeed. And after a brief thaw, it feels like the forecast for Russian-American relations may be ominous again, or at least it should be, particularly by those who have sworn to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Millennials were introduced to the undeniable connection between the Olympics and politics this year when, during the Opening Ceremonies, Vice President Mike Pence sat in protest and refused to acknowledge the presence of North Korean leader Kim Jung Un’s sister, all while North and South Korean athletes walked in unison. At least Pence, the dedicated athletic antagonist that he is, stayed for the Opening Ceremonies and didn’t walk out, as he did in protest of the anthem protests before a Colts game last fall. And hey, North Korea showed up for these South Korean hosted Olympics, unlike the pass it took on the 1988 Seoul Summer Games. What amazing progress we are making!
Viva la humankind. Errr…
The point: politicians, of all persuasions and ideologies, have consistently used the Olympics and, more broadly, sports, as a platform to further a cause. Athletes have a decorated record of returning the favor, particularly during times of national and global unrest – which we are unquestionably experiencing today. But there is an emboldened minority displeased with the latest, proud and passionate collection of athletes seeking political change. Just stick to sports, the say. In other words, be less trouble, less human. Recently, Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham served as an inflammatory mouthpiece for those put off by politically responsible athletes when she commanded LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.”
Ahhh yes…’tis the season for obnoxious demands instead of meaningful conversations. Unfortunately for Ingraham and her ilk, the fist shaking will not net the desired effect. Nor should it. What this is, at its heart, is not an issue with athletes flexing political muscles, but rather a dangerous intolerance of diversity of thought. Dangerous because, when disagreements no longer prompt curious, respectful dialogue, a little part of the great idea that is America dies.