By John Kass
I missed the closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympic Games on Sunday and didn’t watch much of the games, either. That’s not a brag or a confession of sin.
It is what it is. I just missed it. I wasn’t compelled the way I had been. The TV ratings were down, so perhaps you missed as well. Were the poor ratings about the great difference between the time zones from east to west, or the lack of spectators due to the pandemic? Or was it something else?
Now that it’s over, I wonder if it was the incessant threat of political histrionics by some athletes and self-promoting media that put their politics in front of sport. Though drawn to the Olympic flame, they weren’t moths, exactly. They were more like angry yellow jacket wasps, hovering aggressively the way wasps hover over a picnic.
All you have to do to avoid the wasps is avoid the picnic. And so, looking back now that it’s over, I suppose I avoided the picnic.
One such wasp was ESPN writer William Rhoden, an African American, who said he was offended by the sight of the American flag at the Opening Ceremonies and sees “the rise of white nationalism” in the red, white and blue.
“Nationalism is not good,” he said on CBS about the Olympics in which nations compete with other nations in sports. “…And also, this whole idea—I keep thinking back on the Capitol riots, and I saw a lot of, you know, U.S. flags. So now when I see the flag and the flag raised, what—what, what, America am I living in?”
Wasps are ecumenical in their politics and share a desire to promote themselves. Jason Whitlock, Black conservative sportswriter, and Charlie Kirk, a white conservative talk show host, dishonored themselves in the matter of Simone Biles, the great American gymnast.
Biles withdrew from competition after suffering a bout of what gymnasts call “the twisties,” losing spatial orientation while turning in the air. She was disoriented, and afraid. She’d lost control and it was terrifying.
Whitlock said she had to toughen up like gritty champions of old. Kirk, who hawks boxed American beef for pay, mocked her as a coward, “sociopath,” and a “shame to the country.’
“We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” Kirk said. “If she’s got all these mental health problems: don’t show up.”
Other wasps darted in from yet another angle, congratulating Biles for quitting and glorifying themselves in the waters of sensitivity.
“Simone Biles’ withdrawal is more impressive than winning,” cooed a headline in The Week, and others joined in, in a display of the virtue signaling so typical of today’s media.
I wondered, briefly, what such writers would have said said about Roberto Duran, the snarling Panamanian street urchin and the greatest prizefighter I’ve ever seen, who quit in the infamous “No Mas” fight against Sugar Ray Leonard and was hated by media.
Biles quit with the eyes of the world on her. So did Duran. Only one was forgiven. It wasn’t Duran.
Duran, too, was frightened over loss of control. He didn’t have the “twisties” but Leonard danced away from him, refusing to fight, refusing to close with the champion, running away and clowning in a giant ring made to the Leonard camp’s specifications.
Duran, fearing humiliation, quit rather that have Leonard beat him that way.
And he wasn’t forgiven. He wasn’t embraced. He was hated and was compelled in later years to take beatings at the hands of larger, stronger men to for the chance at redemption and to win championships. Biles is not Duran. She’s America’s sweetheart.
So, she was forgiven, and returned to win a bronze medal on the balance beam.
But by then I’d turned it off to avoid all the wasps.
It it wasn’t always that way with me. The Olympics were once vitally important to me, every aspect, and almost all the competitions. I was something of an Olympic geek, devouring stories about athletes of every nation, and reading histories about the origins of the Olympic games, once dedicated to Zeus, king of the gods.
As young men many years ago, my brothers and I raced the 200 meters in the ancient Olympic stadium at Olympia, Greece. There were old rocks, platforms for statues, and sand. Weeds waved in a dry wind. We were alone, except for another tourist, a pink man.
He was middle aged, portly, a red-haired German guy in orange or red shorts and sandals burnt pink by the sun.
Peter and Nick and I warmed up, stretching theatrically, and laughing to cover the excitement of a race in the stadium, pretending it was no big deal to run on that hallowed ground. But we knew it was a big deal.
The German guy, who was obsessed by rules, kept pointing to small signs telling people not to engage in athletic events. The signs said “no running” in red English letters. But those little signs couldn’t possibly have been meant for us.
“No!” he shouted as we stretched, theatrically, mocking ourselves, and he pointed at the little signs. “No! This is not correct!”
We ignored him for the most part, but when we got into sprinter’s stance, thumbs and fingers on the ground, from the corner of my eye I could see his pink feet in the sandals, and his burnt pink toes, stomping in righteousness on the sand.
We ran anyway and it was glorious.
And the stories we read as boys about the Olympics were just as glorious.
When the native American Jim Thorpe won the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, King Gustav V of Sweden told him, “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
“Thanks King,” said Thorpe.
Stories of Jesse Owens shaming Hitler’s white supremist nation; and stories of Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn,” perhaps the greatest middle- and long-distance runner in history (at least in his time), setting 22 official world records, winning nine gold and three silver medals in 12 events in his Olympic career.
Nurmi held simultaneous world records in the 5k meters and 10K meter races, and the 1,500 meters. In the 1924 Olympics he set the world record for the 1500 and the 5000, with rest of just an hour between races.
And the story of Spyridon Louis, who won the gold in the marathon at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, as my grandfathers were coming over on boats to America. Louis, a Greek watercarrier, is said to have knelt in vigil at a church the night before his run.
Was it my heritage that bound me to the Olympics, as an immigrant’s son in America, unsure of my place here? Or was it the Olympic ideal, and the American ideal, melding together in me, the Olympic theme resounding in my heart, that merit was everything, and that the race goes to the swiftest?
I do know that years ago, we were of the “Wide World of Sports” generation, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat and all that, and as immigrants from a land torn by the atrocities of civil war just 10 years before I was born, we weren’t raised to hate our nation’s flag.
When I was 12, the great American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won medals in Mexico City. They raised black gloved fists in a Black Power salute. This was 1968. America was tearing itself apart. We were part of the white flight from Chicago, fleeing from unrest and violence, and I understood why they raised the fist.
Just three years before the Rev. Martin Luther King marched against racism in that famous march in Selma, Alabama. With him in support was our own Archbishop Iakovos, when other white clergymen avoided King. There was chaos and anger in the streets. And I understood the gloved fists in the air in Mexico City.
For centuries, Black people had been marginalized. The Civil Rights movement helped end that, but so too, did the American people, when they realized that discriminating against someone for the color of their skin isn’t only wrong and unfair, but it is (or at least, it was, once) fundamentally anti-American.
But we are not that nation now. America has changed. We are a different nation, and the only ones who divide by race, those who are offended by the American flag, are in the same camp of those who push racial conflict and support policy that in the name of “equity” divides the country into tribes of winners and losers on the basis of race and pushes the losers to the margin of society if they dare complain.
You might call the left’s “equity” push Jim Crow on steroids, because it is racist.
But the Olympic ideal, and the American ideal, isn’t about selecting winners and losers on the basis of skin color or class or who their parents were. What matters is merit. The fastest runner wins the race. The best wrestler wins the match. And there are no events that involve hamstringing the best sprinter or requiring them to carry extra weight.
Having turned off the Olympics, I moved on with my life. I didn’t miss it. I’d tuned out all the wasps.
Until jubilant American wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock made history and won the gold. And then she did something quite shocking.
She didn’t spew hate on her country. She said she had pride in America. She praised God and the United States.
She wasn’t offended or frightened by the American flag. She didn’t use it as a whip to lash at those with political views she may or may not have agreed with. She embraced draped the red-white-and-blue and wore the flag about her shoulders in her post match interviews.
“I love representing the USA,” she told reporters. “I love living there. I love it, and I’m so happy I get to represent USA,” she said, making history as the first Black woman to win a gold medal in wrestling.
“Of course, I surprise myself,” Mensah-Stock said. “It’s by the grace of God that I’m even able to move my feet…and it’s so weird that there is no cap to the limit that I can do. I’m excited to see what I have next.”
And just like that I was cured. I’m excited to see what she has next. I don’t think the wasps are excited.
Wasp, where is thy sting?
(Copyright 2021 John Kass)