Jewish World Review May 24, 2004/ 4 Sivan 5764
Unashamed in Athens
Few traits are more attractive than humility in victory. But it's a tall order for Olympic athletes who are being asked to "tone down" their pride when medals are draped around their necks in Athens this summer.
No hootin' 'n' hollerin', in other words. No grabbing the flag and running around the track. None of that, shall we say, cowboy behavior.
You may have heard that Americans aren't popular these days - no small thanks to the perverts at Abu Ghraib - and that our Olympians are on the spot. Given the PR pressures, not to mention safety risks, the U.S. Olympic Committee hired Mike Moran, senior media consultant to the committee, to coach Olympic team members in international etiquette. He's teaching them about Greek culture as well as gentlemanly (and dare we say "lady-like") behavior in a contemptuous, post-Iraq world arena.
"It's not business as usual for American athletes," says Moran. "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."
Heaven knows we don't want to offend anyone, though I confess at this point that my initial reaction is, "Oh, yeah, well Merry Christmas to you, too." Good manners, on the other hand, are always welcome and rare these days, especially in American athletics. Displaying less exuberance in victory - I mean you won, right? - isn't going to make the moment less merry or diminish the medals' sheen.
Nevertheless, two things tilt me toward the "oh, yeah" side of the stadium.
One is that we're asking our athletes to subdue themselves at what is arguably the highest point in their lives. Imagine working several hours a day for years and years in order to compete at the highest level against the best in the world and then having to stifle the impulse to be really, really happy.
Every American is proud in that moment when one of our own prevails. That doesn't mean we're proud of everything we've ever done, or of every policy. Indeed, our nation is divided as never before as we seek a graceful exit from a difficult war. But we are justifiably proud of our athletes as they exult in winning the ultimate competition.
By their accomplishments - with apologies to no one - they have a right to grab a flag and beam their pride across the stands.
The other nagging little detail in this portrait of contrived public virtue is the subtext, which exceeds a mandate for manners. Beneath the veneer of good sportsmanship is an element of self-contempt and a presumption of shame. We're asking our athletes to bear the nation's burden, but for what?
For liberating the Iraqi people? For freeing the women of Afghanistan from brutal, murdering theocrats? For sacrificing our own people and billions of dollars to help Iraqis dig out from beneath decades of tyranny? For releasing political prisoners, reuniting families and vaccinating thousands of children?
For providing prosthetics to people whose limbs were hacked off by Saddam Hussein? For building infrastructure, schools and hospitals? For eliminating the twin scourges known as Uday and Qusay? Thanks to the demise of Uday Hussein, courtesy of coalition forces, Iraqi athletes can compete in the Olympics this year without fear of reprisal. As head of Iraq's Olympic Committee, Uday was notorious for torturing and murdering athletes who failed to win.
But shame comes naturally to Americans. We feel guilty about everything - from the genocide of the American Indians, to the enslavement of Africans, to the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Given that guilt is a sign of conscience, we might view that tendency as a positive.
No other nation is quicker to condemn itself or to seek redemption through justice and generosity. One of the Abu Ghraib offenders already has been convicted and sentenced, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seeks ways to compensate abused detainees.
No, we're not perfect, but shame is misplaced at this moment and at these events. Our shame already has been expressed in court-martials and public hearings where they belong. Our athletes should display good manners, sure, but if they win, then by Yankee Doodle, they have every right to be proud.
I say, grab a flag if you're so moved, and wish the hecklers a Merry Christmas. In the nicest possible way.
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