"Crumbs From Your Table" (2004), 2016 Summer Olympics, American Moralisms, American Narcissism, Brazil, Chad Le Clos, Doping, Frank Deford, Gabby Douglas, Lilly King, Michael Phelps, NBC Coverage, Rich vs. Poor, Rio, Rio de Janeiro, Sports Illustrated, U2, Wholesome Images, Winners and Losers, Yuliya Efimova
The famous and often loopy sports writer Frank Deford wrote this about America’s narcissistic display of celebration in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Despite the changes in location, the change in networks, and the shifts in coverage over the years, the ability of the US to celebrate its greatness as if the nation was an underdog every four years knows no bounds. Americans moralize, spin stories of wholesome athletes, and frame the games as if the rest of the world is a bunch of losers. Chuck a few words like “The Soviets,” “2.5 billion,” and “Rick Carey,” and substitute “The Chinese,” “5 billion,” and “Lilly King” or “Michael Phelps.” That, and the locale being Rio de Janeiro, are the main differences.
NBC’s coverage has been narcissistic jingoism to the extreme. If you want to see Olympians from other countries who competed but didn’t win gold — or Olympians who won gold but don’t speak English — you can pretty much forget about seeing them on NBC. BBC News has provided more of this global coverage, even in the midst of its British/British Commonwealth bias. NBC can say that it’s giving Americans what they want. Really? Primetime coverage on the mothership and spotty and often tape-delayed coverage on its other channels, with a few clips online? Wow, Americans must only care about America so much that they are willing to miss hours of inspirational stories and exemplary athletic performances. Yet apparently Americans do want the dozens of mentions of Maya DiRado’s recent marriage and new house in Atlanta, where she’ll apparently settle down like June Cleaver after The Games. That, and that most Americans expect to win, like the way L.A. Lakers fans have been at home games assuming twenty-point blowouts night after night for the better part of 60 years.
This isn’t to say that Americans haven’t achieved greatness during the Rio Games. Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Lilly King, Maya DiRado, Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Laurie Hernandez, Michelle Carter, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Corey Cogdell-Unrein, Allyson Felix, among so many others, have had great, even historic, times. Yet Americans celebrated Ledecky’s 11-second win in the 800m final as if it was preordained magic and proof of American imperial superiority at the same time. Swimming is a resources-dependent sport, requiring Olympic-sized pools, investments in coaching, and thousands of hours of training. That Ledecky won by such a huge margin isn’t just an indication of superior athletic talent and training. It’s a reflection of a serious financial commitment by parents and public/private funds from the richest nation in the world to making gold medals in swimming a priority. It’s an example of haves versus have-nots, an unfairness baked into the cake of the Social Darwinist modern Olympics from the time they began in 1896.
Lilly King and others have moralized about their achievements being done without the enhancements of PEDs. As if American athletes are always clean. As if American Olympians haven’t been caught doping in the recent past. As if the advantages of living in a wealthy nation committed to winning above all else doesn’t translate into maximizing athletic talents in every Olympic sport. King’s bravado might have been seen as cute or wonderful by some, especially over her Russian competitor Yuliya Efimova. But it’s no different from Donald Trump bragging about how much money he has to a room full of ex-cons who served time for shop lifting or stealing a few dollars.
There’s a racial component to all of this as well. It’s okay for wholesome folks like Phelps to make Chad Le Clos look stupid, or for King to moralize about doping. Not so much in the Black-dominated track and field, or in men’s basketball, or for Blacks in swimming and gymnastics. There, Americans not only expect their Olympians to win. They expect them to know their place, not discuss race, and have their hand over their heart when the National Anthem’s playing.
U2 in “Crumbs From Your Table” (2004) asked the question — in regard to rich countries like the US — “Would you deny for others what you demand for yourself?” In the case of the US, the answer is, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!,” or “Y-E-S! Y-E-S! Y-E-S!” Americans already do it to each other, through racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and plutocracy. Why would it be different for the US regarding the rest of the world?