Alan Braunholtz: That Olympic pride
Nationalism can be a strange emotion, uniting very different people under a flag for at times, irrational reasons. The Olympics are a case in point. Every four years the medal table rears its head, gains increasing importance as the Games progress and eventually judges not only your country’s Olympic prowess, but in some way, your country itself.
There’s little attempt to examine the country in terms of population size, gross domestic product or other mitigating factors. Jamaica, a poor country with a population of only 2.5 million, is collecting plenty of medals when compared to the traditional athletics superpowers of Russia’s 142 million and the U.S.’ 305 million. Their whole sprint team and the physically unique Usain “Lightning” Bolt, in particular, have performed at supernatural levels, bringing Jamaica to a joyful stop as they proudly celebrate their teams’ achievements.
Straight-up medal tables are great when you come from a powerhouse sporting country like the U.S.A., though a brief cruise through chat rooms will reveal the dismay at China “beating” us in the gold medal count. My favorite excuse being the “yeah sure, in the ninja sports maybe, but they can’t do it in the real ones.” Whatever those are.
I grew up in Great Britain and their national pride definitely takes a beating every four years. Recently, they’ve poured a lot of lottery money into sports and are doing quite well. They’ve dominated cycling, in fact, and I heard this very un-British quote from a team member: “We’re just pissing all over everyone, to be frank.” This statement is so out of character for the understated, overly modest English stereotype that it’s brilliant, but only if you don’t get in the habit.
The U.S. has its own iconic athlete in Michael Phelps. His performances also were amazing and like all Americans, I’m happy for him and proud of his success. I’m also impressed with the class of the Serb, Milorad Cavic, who lost the 100-meter butterfly to Phelps by about a centimeter (can they build swimming pools that accurately?), but had nothing but good words and expressions. How you lose says as much about you as how you win.
My happiness in Phelps’ swims makes sense because it’s great to see such an improbable story come true and his emotions carry you along. My pride makes less sense because it’s been all his hard work ” and his coaches ” and apart from wishing him well I’ve done nothing to help him. I just share the same flag. The Wheaties executives must hope I’ll feel a similar pride when eating from a cereal box celebrating our athletes’ achievements.
I hope Phelps won’t fade from the public eye until the next Olympics. His athletic prowess and body shape are too unique and interesting ” ike Udain Bolt. If Disney ever created a cartoon character of a walking Manta Ray, Michael Phelps would be a good starting blueprint. Johnny Weissmuller became Tarzan after his Olympic career. Maybe there will be a new “Man from Atlantis” after London 2012?
Speaking of medal tables, if Michael Phelps were his own country he’d be in the top 10 by gold medals and there are some nice designs on the BBC Web site for the Michael Phelps flag. Still, whenever an athlete stands proudly watching their flag raise, one can’t help but be moved by the emotion. If it’s your flag, too, the tug of pride is inexplicably strong. Sports allow a nonjudgmental pride in your country’s achievements. It’s purer than politics or business. Sports still holds on to the ideal of hard work and talent equaling success more so than other aspects of life where nepotism, inherited privilege, corruption and other ugly stuff count more and more. That’s why we dislike sports cheats a lot more than business cheats.
There’s still luck, though. Phelps somehow choose swimming instead of basketball or soccer, and luckily lived in a country with decent swimming pools and the opportunity to use them. Maybe it’s that opportunity that makes us proud.
The more opportunities we provide to our children from sports through education, the prouder we can feel.
Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a regular column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.