Commentary

Flagging patriotism at Olympics

Heartwarming competition, not uniforms or nationalism, is modern focus

Updated: August 7, 2012, 12:30 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

The prevailing impression you get from watching the London Olympics in its many televised forms -- and not just the nightly prime-time reality show based on actual events -- is fierce but friendly competition. Aside from the back-and-forth crotch-punching that enlivened Monday's U.S.-Argentina basketball game, it's been a respectful, convivial show of athletic prowess and good sportsmanship, short on nationalism and long on international fraternization. Is this a bad thing?

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Thomas Coex/AFP/GettyImages In case you missed it: The American gymnasts wore pink, the Russians donned blue, Italy was in red, and China dressed in blue with stripes.

There's been a lot of discussion online about a recent segment on Fox News in which a satellite radio host named David Webb took American athletes -- and, by extension, American fans -- to task for not being patriotic enough at the Games. (If you watch, try to ignore the host, who seems to be translating the cue cards in real time from their original Kyrgyz.) In Webb's view, our athletes are not properly demonstrating American exceptionalism, and as evidence he cites gold-medal gymnast Gabby Douglas' pink leotard and the fact that he went to high school with a younger Eruzione brother. (There's also something in there about the national anthem before baseball games -- it's unclear whether he knows it's still in use -- and Webb's desire to hear it followed by "Play ball." So, in all, your guess is as good as mine.) He fashions all of this evidence together into a big lumpy ball of goo and calls it a "soft anti-American feeling," which is infecting our country and leading to the inexorable decay of our empire.

There's no doubt that this is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Taking this sports opinion seriously is like taking advice from an opossum on the art of the crossing a dark country road. But there's a major point among the many bypassing Webb: The Olympics have changed. Professionalism has irretrievably reduced the nationalism of the participants and proceedings. (At the same time, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and others are championing a bill that would eliminate taxes on medal winnings.) There's no doubt Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant understand their good fortune when it comes to maximizing their value in a sports-crazed capitalist economy, but they're probably not in the locker room listening to Toby Keith songs to get ready to play Argentina.

Olympic athletes aren't fighting a war or defending the honor of their country so much as doing a job. And when they do it well, and with the kind of pride that reflects well on themselves and their country, we're all better for it. Part of knowing you're good is resisting the urge to flaunt it.

It was far easier to get all nationalistic when the athletes were amateurs who worked two jobs or relied on their parents to fund their lives while they embarked on Olympic endeavors. Back then, American athletes were going up against the communist-state sponsored athletic machines of the Soviet Union and East Germany. (And, in boxing, Cuba.) If you were sitting in front of your television in America, there wasn't much gray area. It was easy, especially as an 8-year-old, to root against the robotic Valeriy Borzov as he won the 100 and 200 meters in Munich.

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Tony Duffy/Getty ImagesWhen Valeriy Borzov won the 200 meters in 1972, the Olympics had greater political undertones.

It's a common theme: Everything new is bad; every era before this one was better. This apparently holds true for politics and movies and neighborhoods and the economy, so why not the Olympics? People like Webb are pining for the days when America's enemies were as obvious as the Adam's apples on the throats of the East German female shot-putters. To the detriment of jingoism -- and Webb should look up the word; it's not positive -- national identity is far less important than it used to be. Oil-rich Middle Eastern countries have purchased athletes from Africa and Europe in an effort to boost their nations' athletic profile. To this point, it hasn't worked, but it's interesting that the athletic federations in those countries have taken to checkbook competition in part because they believe that the wealthy, spoiled children in their own countries will never have the inclination or motivation to put down their expensive electronic appliances long enough to be competitive.

Maybe Webb should move to London, where British singer Morrissey sees nationalism running freely in the streets. He decried his country's "blustering jingoism" and asked on his website, "Has England ever been so foul with patriotism?"

On the other side, legendary Australian swimming coach Denis Cotterell has been criticized in his country for coaching the Chinese 1,500-meter freestyle record holder, Sun Yang. Cotterell won't confirm nor deny, but he reportedly earned more than $500,000 for Sun's world-record-setting swims in the 400 and 1,500. It chafes the Aussies even more that the 1,500 was considered their event, and Sun broke the long-standing world record held by Australia's Grant Hackett. Non-Australian athletes coached by Australians have won 14 medals, Australia 22.

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Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFelix Sanchez stopped to honor his grandmother after winning the 400 meter hurdles.

The lines are blurred. Many of the most patriotic American athletes are those who have seen what it's like to live elsewhere. U.S. distance runner Lopez Lemong was one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan and became a U.S. citizen just one year before competing in the '08 Olympics. His national pride was so great that he campaigned to be the flag bearer in Beijing. He can speak more eloquently than Tyson Chandler or even Michael Phelps about the uniqueness of our country.

And to this point, the most endearing moments have arisen from interaction between athletes from different nations. The enduring image of the Games might end up being Grenada's 400-meter champion Kirani James, who seems like a truly remarkable 19-year-old, exchanging name bibs with double-amputee Oscar Pistorius after their semifinal. Another moment, albeit in a far lower key, came when the camera caught the four noncompeting U.S. gymnasts cheering wildly after a fine uneven bars routine by Great Britain's Elizabeth Tweddle. You could make the case that we saw their reaction only because of the nationalism of NBC's broadcasts, which see the world through the eyes of the U.S. participants, mainly female gymnasts, but that would be mighty cynical of you.

Do you root for laundry, or people? Either way, how can you root against Dominican Felix Sanchez? He won gold in the 400 hurdles and promptly pulled a photograph of his late grandmother from under his bib, laid it on the track and knelt before it. At that point, who bothers to look at the uniform?

And by the way, Sanchez's uniform didn't tell much of his story. He was born in New York City, grew up in San Diego, and went to college at USC. It's a new age, where the lines -- and borders -- blur.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com