After Suni Lee pulled off a stunning triumph in the women’s all-around gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympics, she declared her gold medal a victory for her family, her Hmong community and herself. She pointed to the larger context of all that brought her to that moment and responded with gratitude, especially for her father, who was paralyzed after falling off a ladder in 2019. But notably, she omitted America.
The point isn’t that we were angels in bygone eras. Our patriotism, rather, coexisted with our self-serving goals.
Earlier in the Olympics, Lee was even more pointed. “We do not owe anyone a gold medal,” she tweeted after the gymnastics legend Simone Biles withdrew during the team all-around final and the rest of the U.S. women then went on to win silver. “We stepped up when we needed to and did this for ourselves.” Her comments rubbed many the wrong way, taking it as an indication that she was at the Games for herself, rather than for her country.
The American Twittersphere that demands the U.S. remain atop the gymnastics world indefinitely, as if it were a divine right, exudes the kind of exceptionalism the rest of the world despises in us. It’s not fair to athletes like Lee, it’s not realistic, and it’s not a good look. But neither is dismissing the responsibility that perceptive athletes feel toward the community on whose behalf they compete. A shift from nationalism toward individualism might win us medals, but it will lose us something equally valuable: selflessness.
The Olympics is the ultimate expression of national community representation — in other words, a sporting experience bigger than oneself — going back to its origins. The ancient Greeks halted wars so that athletes could participate. Sending the best of us to the quadrennial competition continues their vision of peaceful competition and community today. We march into the Olympic stadium by country; we wear the colors of our flag; the organizers play our national anthem upon our victory — and, significantly, we shake hands afterward. The Games haven’t replaced warfare with competition as the founders of the modern Olympic movement hoped, but that’s the goal we strive toward.
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To get there, our government — the people — sponsors the athletes who participate in the Olympics, while our society as a whole produces them in an astounding display of what our democracy is capable of achieving. To turn our backs on this national effort means losing the unifying cause underpinning each Olympic cycle. Without them, nations coming together in peace merely become sole contractors jetting into a major city for work.
It also damages the essential bond between the supporter and the supported. Lee is correct when she says she doesn’t owe us a gold medal. She owes herself the best performance she can give. But as a nation, we should still treasure the American baseball icon Joe DiMaggio’s philosophy: “There is always some kid who is seeing me for the first or last time. I owe him my best.”
While it’s probably not a coincidence that DiMaggio is from a previous century and generation, the fact remains that sport is communal, and there will always be a reciprocal relationship between our athletes and the childlike fans within us. It’s even more clear now that we’ve seen the electricity that competition loses when the community can’t be present in person.
And the athletes also miss out when the focus becomes so individual. “It’s different when you’re representing other people and not just yourself,” the Slovak golfer Rory Sabbatini said after winning silver Sunday in a golf competition capped by an unheard-of seven-man playoff for the bronze medal.
Even the golfer Rory McIlroy, who spurned the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, got into the Olympic spirit while representing Ireland in the seven-man chase. “I never tried so hard in my life to finish third.” he said. To Golf Digest, he went further, explaining, “Being a part of something that's completely different and bigger than me and even our sport in general, that's a pretty cool thing.”
Normally, a miss on the final green costs PGA Tour pros tens or hundreds of thousands in prize money. This week, it was a medal or nothing. It meant much more to the competitors because a price couldn’t be put on it.
Of course, golfers, NBA players and other athletes in high-profile sports make their living — and fame — in professional leagues and see the Olympics as akin to a pro bono summer cause, where it’s easy to focus on a love of their sport and national pride. Swimmers, divers and gymnasts love their work no less, but most of their competitions don’t make them rich; sponsorships from winning gold do. It’s natural that they play for themselves more, and view it as a greater priority.
In many ways, this focus on self has the benefit of improving athletes’ mental and physical health. Tennis stars such as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams — decorated Olympians all — play on into their twilight years because they preserve mental and physical strength by skipping many events, while younger players slog through difficult schedules. NBA players do the same, calling it load management to avoid the negative connotation of what it is — taking nights off.
And our Olympians’ love of country, even when laudable, has not always been pure. The Dream Team that won the gold medal in basketball at the 1992 Barcelona Games was composed of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and other bitter NBA rivals who set aside personal and club pride to come together as a dominant national team. But Jordan was every bit as loyal to Nike as he was to the Stars and Stripes he draped over his shoulders during the national anthem to disguise the Reebok logo on his team-issued jacket.
The point isn’t that we were angels in bygone eras. Our patriotism, rather, coexisted with our self-serving goals. Now it seems it can be not only permissible, but also commendable to backstage that patriotism altogether.
I remember wondering, as I watched the 2012 London Olympics, if any American athletes noticed the historic significance of their medal ceremonies and what peaceful competition among nations truly signifies. In the War of 1812, the British burned our capital and, 40 miles north, bombarded Baltimore harbor. The rockets’ red glare lit up the night sky; the bombs burst over Fort McHenry.
Almost exactly 200 years later, there our champions stood on British soil, not merely welcomed in the very capital of the former enemy, but also placed atop their podiums and serenaded with the music Francis Scott Key’s verses were set to. Did any of them realize how far we had come, how much we had to celebrate? Did they see themselves as carriers of that faraway history into the present? It’s easy, if we focus on ourselves instead of whom and what we represent, to let Key’s stirring imagery become just background noise for another medal ceremony.