Unlike the good Kyle Smith, I continue to keep the Olympics in a place in my heart. I know I don’t “need” American dominance to be reassured that we are the best. But I do enjoy the blaze of jingoism I feel as I scroll through the total number of gold medals won by each nation on Wikipedia. I’m sure that this remains a primary lure for most U.S. viewers.
A problem, however, can arise when our love for watching our guys win morphs into a love for individual athletes whose role-model credentials are dubious at best. Communities elevate their homegrown stars, and parents help their kids make posters celebrating the greats as heroes. Plenty of them have earned this high regard. But the sad reality is that too many others among our darling icons are so desperately lacking in virtue, while the institutional bodies responsible for such international competitions are also sending the wrong message (more on that later).
To be clear, I’m not referring in any way to Simone Biles’s struggles this past week but to an entirely separate trend among our athletes. For one, when they’re not dominating the competition, our glorious Olympians are prone to indulge in the libertine. In Rio, the U.S. men’s basketball team just so happened to “accidentally” stumble into a brothel, while members of our swim team found other creative ways to commit crimes and disgrace us abroad. The most severe punishment received was Ryan Lochte’s: a measly ten-month suspension. Even then, sponsors flocked back to him within a year.
The famed Olympic Village is notorious for its rampant sexual debauchery, with an ever-expanding number of contraceptives offered for free (150,000 condoms? These are not the kinds of records we should be striving to set). Our liberal media often find a way to laugh about it, but it is all rather disappointing.
And then there is the matter of athletes’ grating performative politics. Fans understandably complained when Gwen Berry protested the national anthem. In a similar, more extreme vein, I must admit to feeling a certain sense of glee when I discovered Megan Rapinoe’s obliteration at the hands of the Swedes. Yeah, yeah. I know she is not the entire team. I never said I was proud of it. But it’s not like either of them will ever be booted off the U.S. national team.
Committee members and owners all know that the backlash of removing one of our golden boys or girls from competition would be more severe than the reaction against their behavior, so they ignore it. It’s pretty sad that viewers will tolerate people who are supposed to represent us being so terribly unrepresentative. Remember, we don’t watch the Olympics to see who is the best. I don’t know anyone who watched Michael Phelps set his butterfly world record at the FINA World Championships in 2009. People always tuned in to see Phelps at the Olympics, however, because we considered him to be swimming for us, not just for him. I’d rather we lose an event with an inferior sportsman than have a cheater like Marion Jones or jerks such as Lochte or Rapinoe bring home the gold. A bad symbol is worthless.
* * *
So is it any wonder that professional-athlete culture, much as celebrity culture at large, has grown progressively more disconnected from that of the general populace? Depravity is disregarded in favor of the meritocratic tyranny of shiny medallions and luscious laurels. As retired competitors join the rulemaking bodies that once governed them, the wayward culture of athletes eventually seeps into the bureaucracy, perpetuating it.
The wonderful Jay Nordlinger touched on this last week, but the strongest evidence of the perversion of sports culture is the recent controversy over how female athletes choose to dress. Nothing screams modernity quite like the European Handball Association’s decision to fine the Norwegian national team for wearing thigh-length shorts instead of bikinis — “improper clothing,” as they put it. Meanwhile, the German national gymnastics team has decided to dress in full-body unitards, instead of the glittery swimsuits that female Olympic gymnasts normally wear, to protest the sexualization of the sport.
Here, the athletes should be commended; it’s the bureaucracy that deserves our scorn. What a reflection of our time, that women encounter international attention, criticism, and punishments for choosing to wear more clothing rather than less. I suppose the embarrassment the women feel in their uniforms is irrelevant, so long as broadcasters can satisfy the prurient interests of the men lounging on their living-room couches.
I do not mean to suggest that all women competing in sports with revealing uniforms have an obligation to balk at tradition and join the Norwegians and Germans in showing less skin. But we should certainly praise them. Why is most of the support for this issue coming from the left? We should be up in arms — women are being penalized for modesty. It’s sickening. We ought to lend them our support. Loudly.
Today, the Left is far more willing than the Right to condemn what it deems socially unacceptable. But why? We should hold our American symbols, when they are at home and abroad, accountable when they do things we do not like — and come to their side, vocally, when they do the right thing. Vote with your viewership. The culture of sport will only change when we give it a reason to.