CHARLOTTE, N.C., Aug. 11, 2016 – Watching the U.S. Olympic swim team compete in Rio de Janeiro via network and cable TV might actually be giving Americans a subliminal look at the mood of the country.
Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Lilly King have each given us a peek into the American spirit of competition with individual stories that are compelling to watch unfold. And as each of them performs at the highest level of athletic achievement, which is one of the ideals the Olympics are supposed to represent, we are also being treated in a hidden way to a national pride that has diminished in recent years.
Sports have a way of doing that for Americans, unlike any other enterprise in our psyche. For years soccer, the most popular game on the planet, was given only marginal attention by American sports fans. One reason is the lack of scoring. Give one team a 2-nil lead at any point in a soccer match, and it most of the time it is over.
In the United States the big three, football, basketball and baseball, appeal to our culture because scoring allows an underdog to pull off miraculous upsets on any given day. Americans love it when David upsets Goliath in the final gut-wrenching, heart-stopping seconds to snatch victory from the hands of defeat.
In the United States, Cinderella should be an honorary member of every sports hall of fame.
For most of us, most of the time, sports have become our favorite way to pass the time. But there are moments when they transcend mere games and competition.
Baseball, because of the long daily grind of the season, is frequently a place where Americans can go for healing. Baseball is comfort food after disastrous events. Picture the San Francisco earthquake during the World Series, Yankee Stadium just days after 9/11 or Fenway Park following a terrorist attack during the Boston Marathon.
The Olympics hold, or have held, a different place in the hearts and minds of the American sports fan. Suddenly sports that usually get little attention capture our collective imaginations, partly because of the personalities of the athletes and partly because they are international. It’s us against the world, and we love being in the limelight, especially when we are winning.
Back in the day, the Olympics were easy to embrace. The United States were the guys in the white hats doing battle with the black-hatted Russians and East Germans.
Sometimes certain moments stand out as historical snapshots in time that forever live in our memory, even if we forget the details. Jesse Owens embarrassing Adolf Hitler in Berlin in 1936 or the American hockey team beating the Russians in 1980 are just two cases in point.
But there have been painful moments as well, such as the 1972 Gold Medal basketball game when Russia handed the U.S. its first loss ever in the Olympics.
Television itself has had a dramatic impact on American sports. In the early 1960s baseball was our national game. But a series of events took place that brought the National Football League into the spotlight.
Both football and basketball were much better designed than baseball for television. Baseball is a radio sport. Football derives much of its impact through television and innovations such as replays and slow motion.
By the mid-’60s television was beaming the gridiron into our homes in color for the first time.
There was also something called the Vietnam War. The ’60s were an ugly, turbulent decade. Two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. American soldiers were not revered or thanked for their service the way they are today.
Football became the ideal way for Americans to vent their frustrations watching controlled violence on Sunday afternoons. Baseball’s ballet moved over for brute strength and raw competition as 300-pound behemoths hit each other at full speed.
And then, in 1970 Roone Arledge invented “Monday Night Football” at the ABC network. Soon the drudgery of the first day of the work week yielded to personalities like Don Meredith and Howard Cosell.
Yes, sports are a microcosm of American life.
As the Olympics progress, American swimmers have, in their own way, re-established our pride as a nation and made us proud once again. Each personality has done it in his or her own unique manner.
Katie Ledecky has dominated the sport. So outstanding has she been that her challengers merely swim in her wake.
Michael Phelps with a record 22 Gold medals and probably more to come displayed all-American guts and determination in winning the 200-meter butterfly over archrival Chad Le Clos of South Africa.
In a scene that went viral to viewers around the world, Le Clos put on an amateurish show in front of a stoic Phelps as they waited in the ready room before swimming their semi-final match-up.
In the end, the following night, Phelps captured the gold, and Le Clos finished fourth. It was then that Phelps thrilled the crowd by holding his forefingers high in the air and encouraged the American fans to cheer.
It was reminiscent of the scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where an Arab swordsman stands in the street facing Indiana Jones while doing a rapid series of fancy maneuvers to demonstrate his prowess with the sword. Jones simply pulls out his gun and shoots the swordsman. Odd as it may sound, it’s a laugh-out-loud moment because it symbolizes the American spirit in the same way as did Phelps’ victory over Le Clos.
Then there is outspoken Lilly King, who wagged her finger at Russian challenger Yulia Efimova for her doping violations. King captured the gold while Efimova took the silver, to which King said she just wanted to prove that she was better and “clean.”
Three personalities. Three sources of American pride. Our swimmers are more Reaganesque than they are youngsters who grew up in the age of Obama, for they represent the best of who we are. How refreshing to reacquaint ourselves with the positive energy that made our country great through the spirit of our American athletes.
The U.S. owes our Olympians a vote of “thanks” not only for their dedication, skills and athletic prowess, but also for restoring the pride to a nation that has somehow lost its way.
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Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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