Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 August 2016

The Olympics, American “Exceptionalism,” and Women’s Beach Volleyball


[For a recent post on the risk of assassinations and links to analyses of the presidential campaigns, click here.]

There are several places in South Africa where you can go on a “safari” to “shoot” exotic animals with cameras, not guns. Inverdoorn Game Reserve is one of them.

The male lions there look odd. They seem puffed up, as if they had once been inflated until their skins began to sag. Even from a distance of fifty meters, they look distended, sad and a bit pathetic.

There’s a reason. These lions had been puffed up with steroids so they could look bigger and meaner for trophy hunters, who would shoot them and take their heads home to mount on their walls. The owners of Inverdoorn saved them from that fate. They gave them a “retirement home” in the game preserve, where the abused lions, once drugged up for sacrifice, could live out the rest of their lives more naturally.

When the Russian steroid scandal broke, I thought of those lions. Steroids are not just “performance enhancing” drugs. They are dangerous synthetic hormones, with multiple unresearched effects. They can cause mood changes, including rages. They can cause lasting changes in skin, muscles, bones and psyche, especially when taken for years, as many Russian athletes did. All this goes double for steroids designed primarily to evade detection, which hardly undergo rigorous tests for safety.

What possessed the Russians to do this to their best athletes? For what purpose? The glory of Putin? Or was it all just a holdover from the Soviet Union, with its “Soviet Man,” who was supposed to be something brand new, an artificial shortcut in human evolution?

The Russians didn’t just try to cheat the Olympic authorities. They tried to cheat life itself. Not surprisingly, they lost.

The result is now plain in the medal tallies of the 2016 Olympics. Whereas once the US-Soviet (now US-Russian) rivalry was a central feature of Olympic interest, the Russians now are down in the noise, along with much smaller nations. Even the Chinese—with a population about four times ours—are lagging. We Yanks, sans steroids, are so pre-eminent that the Olympics might seem boring, at least if you dote on geopolitical rivalry.

But is that really the point? Is it all about national prestige and dominance? Is that what the ancient Greeks had in mind when they invented the Olympics? the Romans when they wrote “citius, altius, fortius” (faster, higher, stronger)? Or are the Olympics about something else—an endless striving for individual perfection from a base of self-evidently imperfect bodies and minds? Aren’t the Olympics just an acknowledgement and celebration of our human condition?

The notion that we Yanks are “exceptional” is both wrong and dangerous. It smacks of “Deustchland über alles.” We are just people like everybody else.

But there is something exceptional about how we’ve organized our society. Our athletes don’t strive for the glory of the State or its leaders, or under their subsidy. (We do have lots of subsidies, but they are nearly all private, and they involve a lot of advertising.) Our athletes strive to perfect themselves for themselves and for the sheer joy of sport.

How we motivate our people is also special. We don’t weigh them down with a sense of obligation or duty. We try as hard as we can to let them be themselves—to grow, develop, improve and perfect themselves at their own speed and in their own way.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That’s the motto in our Declaration of Independence, and that’s the way we Yanks actually try to live. The French just passed a law to prohibit Islamic women from wearing modest body-covering bathing gear on certain celebrated French beaches. We Yanks would never think of passing such a law. If you want to encumber yourself with hot, heavy, waterlogged clothing on a beautiful summer’s day, that’s up to you. Go for it! At least you won’t need much sunscreen.

With astronomical economic inequality, it’s hard for us Yanks to argue that we are an egalitarian society. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” remains as much a promise and as little a reality as when the French invented the slogan during our species’ bloodiest revolution. Yet here in America, ordinary individuals can still rise to influence and prominence among us, more than in any other society.

Consider Khizr M. Khan. He’s just an ordinary father of a fallen soldier. He’s also a member of a feared and widely misunderstood religious minority. Yet he rose to challenge a major-party presidential candidate to read our Constitution, and he accused him of having “sacrificed nothing.”

Was he rushed off the podium? Was he ignored and vilified? No and no. His message hit home. A “silent majority” of decent Americans, including veterans, rose to his support.

Try that in Putin’s Russia, or in Xi’s China. You won’t get very far. You wouldn’t even get far in Britain, France or Germany. No one would stop you from speaking there, but you wouldn’t be heard. No one would broadcast your words, because you’re no one special.

But here in America, you don’t have to be special to be noticed. You just have to do or say something special, maybe only once. That’s the lesson of Khizr M. Khan. And that—not the nukes we invented or our fine military—is what makes our society exceptional. That’s why people keep coming here, from all over the world, despite our Second Gilded Age of inequality and the increasingly self-evident design flaws in our democracy (See 1 and 2).

So when we Yanks go to the Olympics, we sport the red, white and blue, but we go as individual athletes, proud of our individual races, ethnicities, origins and orientations. We can be who we are, and we each can try to do our best in our own way. We can take joy in life, liberty and the pursuit of athletic excellence.

We do well in the Olympics because the vast majority of Olympic events is individual. But some sports, like soccer and water polo, are team sports. How does a nation built on joyful individualism fare in team sports? As it turns out, not badly.

Of all summer team sports, the one that most captures my imagination is beach volleyball. (I once played it, while young, albeit far below an Olympic level.) It’s a unique team sport because it uses teams of two. In contrast to doubles tennis, for example, its teams of two are the essence of the sport: there’s no such thing as individual volleyball.

This year, our best Yankee showing is in women’s beach volleyball. Our team is a wonder to behold. Its leader is Kerri Walsh Jennings, preternaturally tall and willowy. She’s had three kids and four shoulder surgeries. But at 38, she’s still playing strong, going for her third Olympic gold medal. Who says you can’t have it all?

Her partner, Alice Ross, is a bit of an ingenue, but nearly equally skilled. She’s replaced Walsh Jennings’ long-time partner and has a mean serve and robot-like skill in digging spikes.

But the thing to watch as the pair plays is not their considerable individual skill. It’s their cooperation. They move like a single organism to fill voids on the court. One goes right, the other left, or one up, the other back. They seem to know where the ball is coming. And despite their height and long, powerful arms, both rarely just try to blast through a block. They both aim accurately for where their rivals ain’t, with precision that’s a joy to watch.

Theirs is not just excellence, but joy, in sport, and in cooperating.

There’s also much joy outside Team USA. There’s Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, with his “lightning bolt” gesture, his winning smile, and his jovial antics. More generally, the near-dominance of the sprints by the tiny nation of Jamaica caused a lot of joy both in that nation and among its expatriates and immigrants here at home.

Then, last night, there were the two Brazilian free-X gymnasts, who never expected to be on the podium and cried like babies when misfortune higher up in the rankings put them there. “Time and chance happeneth to them all.”

And our course there was Michael Phelps, due to retire at 31, with 23 gold medals. Over four Olympics, he worked himself up to team captain and flag-bearer for us Yanks. He leaves the field not only as the most decorated Olympian ever, but as a joyful example to youth everywhere.

The trick is not just to recognize individuals when they stand out, as in a sport. That can be politically useful and is oft exploited. The trick is to recognize, encourage and motivate individuals to do their best every day, no matter who they are or where they come from, and without regard to political or commercial advantage. For all our faults and troubles, we Yanks still do that well.

Maybe that’s why we now dominate the medal tallies. But it’s not the tallies that count. It’s the joy of life, liberty and the pursuit of sport that count. The medal tallies will follow, from our common human condition and the motivation of our youth.



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