VIEW TO THE WEST
Medal Count Fever: An Olympic History
by Peter Shelton
Aug 02, 2012 | 1862 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print

I still get a patriotic tingle when I look at the Olympic medal count. The emotion runs deep, like rock-and-roll, like “The Silent Service.”

As I write on Monday, Day 3 of the London Games, China and the U.S. each have 17 medals, but the Reds (sorry, old habit) have more golds than we do: 9 to 5.

It used to be the Russians we were up against, or rather the Soviet Union. You see, the roots of the obsession go back to the Cold War. They should have been expurgated – I thought they would have been erased completely by the injustices of Vietnam and the shame of Bush II – but apparently it’s still there, this identification with a national sporting “we.”

As a kid in the 1960s, it was war. The chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had the term American exceptionalism come to roost with conservatives as a way to justify war: We do it because of America’s special mission (sacred even) to lead the world to liberty and democracy.

Back then, it was purely us versus them, bombast and bomb shelters, Ralph Boston versus Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, John Thomas versus Valeriy Brumel. The 1960 Games, in Rome, were the first ones we watched on TV. That summer the Soviets crushed us 103-71 and 43-34 in gold medals. Long jumper Boston soared past his pale Soviet rival, as did Thomas in the high jump. But Soviet giantess Tamara Press put the shot way farther than our girl Earlene Brown.

We lost the medal race in boxing 4-5, but made up for it when Cassius Clay took the heavyweight gold. In gymnastics, we got skunked: the Soviets won every available medal but three; we took exactly none to their 26. We turned the tables in swimming (bourgeois capitalists have way more swimming pools?), winning the medal war 15-0. Wrestling produced a funny result. (I wasn’t aware of this at the time; only Wikipedia reveals it now.) The Soviets took all three Greco-Roman golds; the freedom-loving Americans took all three in Freestyle.

The Games on either side of 1960 were a disappointment for red-white-and-blue boys like me. In 1956, we got handled, 98-74, by the state-sponsored, plucked-from-the-cradle iron men and women with CCCP on their shirts. In Tokyo in 1964 the final tally was closer, but we still lost 96-90.

Nineteen-sixty-eight brought big changes, in me and in the Olympics. I was 19, just two years away from the end of all college deferments and the waiting draft. Civil rights and Vietnam were turning my assumptions about the country inside out. In Mexico City a transcendent event was overshadowed by a courageous political one.

I competed in the long jump in high school, so when Bob Beamon, on his first attempt, uncorked a leap that was almost two feet longer than anything in history, extending the world record to 29’ 21/2” (a mark that stood for 23 years), I cheered in near disbelief. Then came the men’s 200 meters and the gold and bronze performances of Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It wasn’t the race itself that upended the Olympics’ (supposed) apolitical innocence, it was their raised-fist black power salute during the national anthem that rocked the world. They were, of course, banned immediately from the village, the team, and the Olympic movement.

That’s when things began to fall apart. Munich in 1972: The massacre of 11 Israelis by a Palestinian terrorist group dominated the news. That was also the Games when, out of nowhere, suspiciously masculine East German women crushed everybody in swimming.

In 1980, we boycotted the Moscow summer Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So those medal numbers don’t count. Neither, then, should the numbers from Los Angeles in 1984, when the Soviets returned the favor. L.A. was the first tasteless, over-the-top capitalist Games, during which McDonalds’ “When the U.S. Wins, You Win” campaign could net you a free Big Mac.

No one with blood in his veins could have resisted the “Miracle on Ice.” When a bunch of scrappy U.S. college boys beat the Soviet Red Army pros in ice hockey in 1980, that was indeed a miracle. But not long afterward Ronald Reagan usurped the symbolism to declare an end to the national shame of Vietnam and the return of American pride, American exceptionalism. The trouble was, as a Californian who had suffered through his governorship, I knew him to be a bully, a genial-sounding liar. We purposely didn’t own a television then. I couldn’t look. Blind patriotism, Olympic or otherwise, had become anathema.

The nadir came in 2004. The summer Games were in Athens. George Bush was about to be reelected. The U.S. had decided on a path of preemptive war, torture, and domestic wiretapping. On a trip to Chile that summer I was, like the Dixie Chicks, embarrassed to be an American. A sympathetic stranger put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I am so sorry.”

But the Olympics that year somehow transfigured both the world and my mood. Michael Phelps won his first eight medals, six of them gold. The U.S. women’s 4x200 swim team eclipsed, finally, the world record set by those East Germans. In a measure of justice the U.S. men’s basketball team lost for the first time since NBA players had been allowed to participate.

And finally, in 2004 China won its first-ever gold medal in track and field, when the automatic gazelle Liu Xiang took the 110m hurdles, foreshadowing a dominance to come.

But, crucially, we won the medal count, 102 to 63, over the Red Chinese.



pshelton@watchnewspapers.com

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