Gender & Identity, Life

I’m really only a patriot during the Olympics, and I’m cool with that

Like Gabby Douglas, I don’t rush to place my hand on my heart during the national anthem, either.

Today another Olympics draws to an end, taking with it scores of sexist and just plain annoying media coverage, a bunch of athletes whose careers most of us won’t care about again until 2020, and, of course, my rare and fleeting American pride.

While NBC gymnastics coverage makes me despise America all on its own, the Olympics are, at their best, a display of the very best my country has to offer (if Beyonce were there, it would be elevated tenfold) or at least they should be. It’s been a rough 2016, with Donald Trump’s unfortunate visage cursing every screen in our great nation, but the Olympics’ athletically blessed roster of participants varying in race, gender and religion, creates an illusion of a nonexistent utopia.

Though I avoid most things red, white and blue (it’s so cheesy), that trio of colors never looks as attractive as when a bunch of athletes I’m only vaguely aware of wear it together and attempt to dominate the international world of athletics. I first became aware of my temperamental patriotism during the 2008 Beijing Olympics during the Men’s 4×100 Relay Final when Team USA barely edged out the French team to win gold. Before this, I approached the Olympics with a vague sense of interest, nodding along to America’s triumphs and glories and paying particular attention to nations whose uniforms were cute. But while Jason Lezak (whose name I didn’t know and have since mostly forgotten—sorry, Jason) pulled ahead, a fifteen year old me was screaming like I actually cared, demanding America crush France and the arrogant Australian team in a definite showing of our dominance.

That was a really exciting period in my life, and also the one where I determined to watch the Olympics with that same amount of fervor every time. This year’s Olympics has had an easier time than most, with a team full of athletes who represent the best America has to offer—and most of them are women.

The US had the best women’s gymnastics team (men…not so much), made up of two history-making black women (Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas), a Jewish woman (Aly Raisman), a Latina (Laurie Hernandez) and Madison Kocian. Simone Manuel made history herself as the first black woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. The women’s track and field relay team (made up entirely of black women) came away with gold after a momentary scare they wouldn’t be able to compete following a baton drop in the semifinals. And Allyson Felix became the most-decorated track and field star in history.

Black Muslim woman Ibtihaj Muhammed, the first American woman allowed to compete in her hijab, scored a bronze medal in fencing, and Dalilah Muhammad, also a Black Muslim woman won gold in the women’s 400-meter hurdles – most definitely upsetting some racist white dude’s worldview. Michelle Carter was the first American woman to win a gold medal in shot put.

Meanwhile, Katie Ledecky has made boys cry and shattered world records while winning gold by whole body lengths.

The red, white, and blue looks incredible and inspiring when worn by these women, but while their success may be a true depiction of what America has to offer, the adoration and accolades these athletes receive aren’t. Everyone loves America’s multiracial and multicultural makeup when it’s winning gold medals and international fame, but when Gabby Douglas has a hair out of place while performing nearly death-defying feats, she’s an international embarrassment.

Then of course the issue is compounded when, during the national anthem, her limbs aren’t arranged to the satisfaction of so-called patriots everywhere.

Oh yes, there’s the America I know so well.

Then it gets even more familiar when Ryan Lochte, undoubtedly one of America’s best swimmers and dumbest citizens (JEAH!!) causes an international incident when he lies about being robbed in Rio and the public response is, “Those darn kids.” Usually it’s just Tim Daggett and Al Trautwig’s horrible gymnastics commentary threatening the Olympics’ play for my national pride, now Ryan Lochte is doing it, too?

After this robbery story got increasingly more and more ridiculous (we should have all been suspicious when Lochte claimed he said “Whatever” to a gun pointed to his head), Lochte offers up halfhearted apologies and rumors swirl about a swimming ban.  I’m not sure if that would matter much, considering Lochte is past thirty, and as the Olympics teaches us, athletes only have so much in them. Unless you’re beach volleyball phenom Kerri Walsh-Jennings (please don’t ever quit, Kerri).

While Lochte’s dumb, all-Americanness has made for some nice comic relief, this year’s antics are cold water thrown on the Olympics’ usual ability to make me forget about my country’s long running and insistent faults. The truth is America is Ryan Lochte – kinda stupid though good at some stuff, willing to throw a foreign country under the bus because of some unnecessary mishap, and even when caught in the lie not entirely ready to fully admit fault.

America’s also Donald Trump and his vile contingent of supporters, Confederate flag waving, my crippling student loan debt, and identifying accomplished women by their marital status.

It’s a shit show.

And while there are shittier shows out there that I wouldn’t want to call my own either, like Gabby Douglas I don’t rush to place my hand on my heart during the national anthem either. I can’t even remember the last time I said the Pledge of Allegiance (do I even remember the Pledge of Allegiance? Eh, barely).

When the closing ceremony airs tonight and Team USA walks through the stadium, with Simone Biles as their flagbearer no less, I’ll still feel a little thrill at seeing American athletes walk away with so many of their Olympic dreams coming true.

But as much as I wish it might, the Olympics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And their patriotism-imbuing powers can only go so far.

  • Chelsea Hensley

    Chelsea A. Hensley is a writer from St. Louis. She recently graduated with a BA in English from the University of Missouri. When she isn’t writing, she's enjoying a book, watching Netflix or listening to Beyoncé. Sometimes she even tries to do all three at once.