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Jewish World Review May 20, 2004 / 29 Iyar, 5764

James Lileks

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Athletes on Notice: Strive Unflaggingly | The only thing worse than a victorious American at the Athens Olympics? A proud one. The United States Olympic Committee has requested that our athletes curb their enthusiasm, since we are, you know, uh, hated. Says the London Sunday Telegraph:

"American athletes have been warned not to wave the U.S. flag during their medal celebrations at this summer's Olympic Games in Athens, for fear of provoking crowd hostility and harming the country's already-battered public image. ... U.S. Olympic officials have ordered their 550-strong team to exercise restraint and avoid any jingoistic behavior."

Said Mike Moran, a USOC consultant: "If a Kenyan or a Russian grabs their national flag and runs round the track or holds it high over their heads, it might not be viewed as confrontational. Where we are in the world right now, an American athlete doing that might be viewed in another manner."

Please. You'd think President Bush had announced that our Olympians have a Divine-given right not only to grab the flag but use the pole to knock the losers senseless.

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Apparently if an athlete grabs an American flag and runs around the stadium, it will enflame the European Street. And the Arab Street, the Asian Street, the African Street, the Central AND South American Streets, the Canadian Rue, and various other roads and alleys from assorted islands and subcontinents. The world simply is not able to take the sight of an American waving a flag in victory.

It would remind everyone that the United States spent months getting U.N. approval for a resolution authorizing force against Iraq, and we actually backed up the U.N.'s empty words with action -- over the objections of France, which had been in bed with Saddam for so long they were no longer sleeping together, just reading until one or the other fell asleep.

That's our sin. That's the stain for which we must slink around in Athens. If an athlete wants to say "We're No. 1," he had better mean the grade-school definition of a bodily function. And heaven help the American fan in the stands who starts a chant of USA! USA! He'll unite many nations. Which is to say everyone will take turns kicking him in the head.

So what sort of tender sensibilities are we being asked not to enflame?

Earlier this year the U.S. Olympic soccer team was having a qualifying match in Mexico; they were up against Canada, and they won. The United States won, whereupon the crowd started chanting "Osama! Osama!"

Seventeen Mexicans died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Twenty-four Canadians died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

You remember that big apology from Vicente Fox, don't you? No?

The Olympics are supposed to be above politics, but that's nonsense. The Soviet Union regularly doped up its female athletes, giving them shoulders as broad as a grand piano so they could demonstrate the superiority of the Bolshevist approach to power lifting. When the United States beat the Soviets at hockey in 1980, the political overtones were explicit: Kissy-face detente aside, Ivan, we enjoy beating you. We really do.

But now we live in a morally inverted world, it sometimes seems.

Imagine if an Iraqi Olympic team beat the U.S., grabbed its new flag and ran around the track celebrating the achievement. The crowd would nearly expire from ecstasy, as though a conquering brute had been shown up by its plucky victims. Never mind that the Iraqis can compete this year without fear of having their kneecaps liquefied, because the United States killed the butchers who tortured athletes for losing.

Sudan, which is ethnically cleansing its Christian Blacks, could hoist its flag. China, whose treatment of Tibet birthed a million indignant bumperstickers, can run around with the flag held high. Russia can flatten Grozny, and its athletes can be assured of huzzahs and applause.

It's not that these governments are better than the United States. What counts is that they are not the United States. In the opening stanzas of the 21st century, that is sufficient to give them a pass.

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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, James Lileks