Am I the only one who feels creepy when the American crowds start chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! at the Olympics? The chant has a bullying tone that sounds like America über alles. The boasting reminds me of certain newspaper columnists who keep explaining that the rest of the world hates us because we are so good. Rich and powerful, good-hearted and reasonable, also citizens of the world-champion democracy. Plus, we produce a race of superhero athletes.
Americans are marinated in this self-congratulation. The Olympics have been converted by NBC and commercial marketing into a cheap jingo melodrama. During the build-up to the finals, the network gins up endless loops of slo-mo video to tell sentimentalized tales of athletes who’ve survived childhood hardship and overcome family strife. The flag is flourished at the triumphant moment, the winners bathed in tears for the deceased parent or the triumph over adversity as they claim the gold. Am I the only American who wants to puke in embarrassment?
We might pause to reflect on why Americans evidently feel such a desperate hunger for confirmation of national greatness (do they perhaps harbor doubts?). But this time around, the question was mooted by the disappointing results. No U-S-A! chanting in Turin. Lots of “broken dreams,” as the sports talkers put it. US athletes did fine, actually, but nearly every one of the concocted melodramas went bust.
A New York Times headline described the outcome, somewhat cheekily, as a blow to “US swagger.” Yes, the United Swagger of America is our chosen posture in the world, and once again it seems that sport imitates life. The United States is getting the swagger knocked out of it elsewhere in the world–it would be tasteless to mention where–and many Americans are in a foul mood, denied their fix of symbolic national triumph, in play and at war. Poor, pitiful America, so good and yet so misunderstood.
Bode Miller, the world-champion skier, embodied this failure. He enjoyed the biggest, most swaggering pregame buildup and became the most embarrassing flop. Appropriately enough, Nike was among his commercial sponsors. It is the brand name for American swagger. In the five events Miller was supposed to win, he straddled a gate and flamed out or finished far behind. The media turned on him, reported that he appeared overweight and out of breath, even whispered he might have a drinking problem.
Bode Miller seemed vainglorious in defeat–waving to the crowds and announcing, unconvincingly, that he was happy with his results. The medals never mattered, he told the skeptical reporters. He wanted his life instead. It occurred to me that, whatever troubles him, Miller might very well be telling the truth. He is a brilliant skier, after all. I began to think maybe he was trying clumsily to free himself from the trademark of hype and swagger that enveloped him and, who knows, just be a skier. Or maybe I am naïve. A few minutes later, a Nike commercial was aired with this tough-guy message: The medals didn’t matter.