Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The freedom of silver

My mom is the most patriotic person I know. I am the 2nd in line. :)

The summer olympic games are memories that I carry with me from my entire childhood. My parents get very excited about the competitions and broadcasts, and I have always carried on the tradition of cheering on my team USA. Now, I know that just about every household at some time or another during this twenty-ninth olympiad will be glued to its television set, holding its collective breaths, and yelling at the screen ("GO MICHAEL, GO GO GO GOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!"). I know that I'm not unusual in loving the olympics. This is America, after all. But I believe that I do have more stamina than most for watching as much as possible, and I get really personal about the games. It's a family thing. My mom and sister and I--and daddy when he got home late at night--used to watch every minute of the television coverage. But that's not all. We would decorate the living room with USA paraphernalia, wear our red, white, and blue USA shirts, make olympic-themed meals and desserts, create scrapbooks out of newspaper articles on the athletes (esp. the gymnasts), and it would consume us for 15 entire days, and then many days after.

The '96 olympics in Atlanta, the XXIV Olympiad, were and always will be my favorite. Who can forget the "Magnificent Seven," the USA women gymnasts who won gold in their home country? Kerri Strugg vaulted with an injured ankle and landed on one foot! Coach Bela Karolyi carried the small star up to the medal podium to receive her gold medal, a picture which was probably on the front page of every newspaper in America the next morning. Michael Johnson with his shiny gold tennis shoes won gold in both the 200 and 400 meter races, setting a new world record in the 200 at 19.32 seconds! Amy Van Dyken won four gold medals in swimming, and she was the first American woman ever to do that in one olympics. Andre Agassi (my favorite tennis player of all time) won the gold medal which earned him the always coveted Career Grand Slam (all four major tournaments + olympics). Carl Lewis, who was only surpassed this year by Michael Phelps for the number of medals won in the olympics, won his fourth gold in long jump at age 35. It was the first olympics for softball, beach volleyball (which is about all they show on NBC this year--errr), mountain biking, women's soccer (we won gold!), and lightweight rowing. Muhammad Ali was chosen to light the Olympic torch and was given a replacement gold medal from his 1960 games. Medals were won by a whopping 79 countries, and a record 197 countries participated, including Palestine, which was admitted into the Olympics as a nation for the first time. I LOVED the 1996 Olympics. (Even if it was a two-week non-stop Coca-Cola/ Kodak commercial.)

There were memorable tragedies, though, and I remember how saddened my family was to hear about the bombing during the games in Centennial Olympic Park, which caused two deaths and 111 injuries. The games were also marred by the continual question of doping, which had become more and more prevalent in athletes' drug tests. [sigh]

But, nonetheless, I look back on Atlanta and think of how proud I was of my country--how proud I was of their patriotism, athleticism, and sportsmanship.

Here we are (fast-forward to 2008) in Beijing (well, not me, but my heart and soul...and my secret crush Bob Costas). I see the Chinese being very proud of their nation and their accomplishments. I see them waving their flags and pumping their fists in the air with victory. I see the Great Wall, the ancient relics of dynasties, and the strong people with an even stronger dictator. No viewer doubts that the Chinese are very proud of their Olympics debut.

But at what cost? These "games" are no longer games anymore! They are showcases of fear and hardship. I've heard horrible stories about how children are taken away from their parents at age 3 if the parents are "genetically superior." That's what happened to NBA basketball player Yao Ming. His parents had good (tall and strong) genes, so he was breeded to be a star. Little children are taken to be gymnasts or divers if their parents are small, strong, flexible, and graceful. They are taken to be table tennis champions if the parents have excellent hand and eye coordination. I am not making this stuff up! Chinese toddlers are ripped away from their parents (who, by the way, still are not allowed to have more children even if the government takes theirs) in order to represent their country. They live in sports facilities like dormitories or boarding schools and train from age 3 to be gold medalists; these are places where 2nd place is not acceptable, and 3rd place is unthinkable. I watch these little girls compete on the Chinese gymnastics team with fear in their eyes. It's even worse for the men's team. One missed step, one missed hand hold, and it's all over. The only joy came when they won the gold, and it didn't look like utter and complete happiness. It looked like from whatever punishment or embarrassment would have come from winning anything less glitzy than gold.

Personally, I like silver better. If I know that my country's athletes have good lives, love competition and the thrill of doing the best they can, are treated well, have no fear of public shunnings or private beatings when they return home, and can have semi-normal lives when they aren't off being olympians, then I would much rather all of the Americans bring home silvers than golds. Gold isn't worth the cost of freedom and human rights from age 3 on.

[Side note: Of course, I personally am THRILLED that Michael Phelps and the rest of the men's relay team on Sunday night blew the France team's hoity toity opinion of themselves to smithereens. But, for everyone else, second place is plenty high enough if it means that my fellow Americans can compete with true excitement in their hearts instead of fear. WE are team USA (thank you, Bank of America, for inspiring this idea with your incessant commercials), and we love our teammates no matter what.]