A country that has been #1 in the world in every imaginable way for the entirety of nearly every living person’s lives is expected to feel some level of superiority. When all you have every known is being the biggest, baddest in the world, a level of confidence is just natural.
Nowhere is this more obvious than every four years during the Olympics. We as a country take pride in our accomplishments and Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas are about the only thing that we can agree on as a whole. I am fine with patriotism bordering on jingoism – even when it causes Bob Costas to level baseless accusations at Chinese teenagers simply because they improved dramatically in a short period of time.
(Sidebar: from the spring of my 8th grade year to my 9th grade year, my long jump improved by 3 feet. Not a single person accused me of taking PEDs. At least that I am aware of. Teenagers bodies change. Of course Bob Costats is approximately 4 foot 2 inches tall, so he may view puberty as a myth no more real than a unicorn).
What has started bothering me during these Olympics is not the U.S. media beating our collective red, white and blue chests but rather the arrogant dismissal and ignorance of sports that America does not dominate or focus on.
Last week, there was a scandal in badminton, in which 4 teams were kicked out for trying to lose their final match of round-robin play in order to improve their elimination round match-ups. While, we as a country look at badminton as a picnic diversion, in corners of the world, it is one of the most popular sports and gold medal winners are treated like we view Tom Brady. Yet, when Dan Wetzel wrote about it, he couldn’t look at it as a sports scandal the equivalent of Italian soccer match-fixing scandals, he looked at it as a joke to be made. The underlying, unspoken message of his entire article was Can you believe these people actually care about this stupid sport?
One of my favorite writers, Bill Simmons is in England providing dispatches back on his view of his first Olympics. While Bill knows more about basketball than practically anyone alive, every time he tries to write about a new sport, it is tough to read through eyes squeezed into a painful cringe. He started with a look at Team Handball, an admittedly foreign event to all but the smallest of American communities. Rather than sit back and enjoy a new and foreign concept, he took the most American of all points of view – he decided to ‘fix’ it. Never mind Team Handball has been played for literally centuries in Europe, and the International Handball Federation says it is currently played in 183 countries by 800,000 teams.
Not seeing a need to learn something about a sport that was new to him, Simmons decided to propose a number of rule changes so it could be more appealing to him. A number of rule changes that, coincidentally, made the game more like soccer and his favorite sport basketball – you know sports he sort of understands.
On Monday, he followed it up by mocking the British for naming a Rower as their greatest Olympian:
That’s right … a rower was Britain’s greatest gold medalist. You could look at this two ways: diplomatically (“I knew they loved rowing in Great Britain, but man, they really love rowing!”) or sarcastically (“Could somebody break the news to British people that rowing isn’t totally a sport?”).
Apparently, Bill hasn’t been able to find his way on to the internet in England (insert joke about driving on the opposite side of the Information Super Highway), because approximately 14 seconds of research shows that SIR Steven Redgrave won gold medals IN FIVE STRAIGHT OLYMPICS!! Can you name any American that has won gold in 5 straight Olympics? No you can’t. Al Oerter won 4 straight Olympic Discus golds, and Carl Lewis won 4 straight long jumps – both 1 Olympics and 4 years short of Redgrave.
Even Pat Forde, whose interest in swimming extends beyond one week every 4 years, putting him in the 99% of swimming fans, couldn’t resist taking a shot at the British celebrating a gold medal in Horse Jumping:
@YahooForde: The British equestrian gold is in team jumping. America, to our immense national shame, finished tied for sixth. #SendInColangelo
I get a knee-jerk reaction of wonder and curiosity at sports we don’t spend every day following. But to me that is the beauty of the Olympics not the butt of a joke to make. My favorite events to watch this year have been Archery – a fascinating competition made even more mind-blowing when you realize the target is 70meters from the Archer – and Table Tennis. I have not watched a moment of boxing, and my only interest in basketball has been driven by gambling interests.
The Olympics are the once-every-four-year party in which us Americans pull our heads out of the collective sand and look at the world of sports happening every day around us. In our obsessions with only-in-American phenomena like baseball and football, we never give a second thought to what the other countries around the world care about.
And when we look around every few years, we should look with the simple eyes of innocent children. Not with the cynical eyes of a country that believes if we don’t win at it, it isn’t worth competing in.
We like to say the Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in the world (it isn’t) but can you imagine tuning in without an understanding of the sport? Guys wearing pads, running into each other. Play stopping every 7 seconds to stand around and talk. A halftime featuring aging rock stars embarrassing themselves by lip-synching some old hit.
Until an Ukrainian writes an article about how we should ‘fix’ the Super Bowl, maybe we should lay off the sports we don’t understand.
You don’t have to understand the intricacies of every sport to enjoy the joy and heartbreak of winning and losing.
That part of sport is universal.