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Olympics, Pride and Patriotism

I don’t get it. I must be missing a gene, or some area of my brain must be damaged. I do not, never have, and probably never will feel pride when people from my country (or city or state) win a basketball game (or a swim meet or track meet or more medals than everyone else).

The guys on Mike and Mike in the Morning were bursting with pride today because Bryant, LeBron and Company beat out the Chinese team and lived up to their nickname The Redeem Team by behaving better than the old Dream Team of Atlanta fame. Similar sentiments are expressed every hour every day during these Olympic competitions. I ask myself, what right could I possibly have to be proud of Kobe Bryant, or any other American athlete? What have I ever done to assist these people in their endeavors? Like I said—I just don’t get it.

In the middle of all this Olympic mania, I happened to attend a San Francisco ball game, the Giants versus their biggest rival, the LA Dodgers. I’m not crazy about the Giants, and at this point they’re out of contention for the playoffs. My only interest in the Dodgers is their new manager, Joe Torre, recently booted out of the Bronx. Still, we had great seats and I might’ve enjoyed baseball for baseball’s sake, if it weren’t for the ridiculously over-the-top, almost vicious booing at LA and cheering for SF. I haven’t been to a game in over a year, so maybe I’ve forgotten, but it seems to me things were a bit less intense last time. When I politely asked the two teenage boys in front of me to sit down, they looked at my Yankee sun visor and sneered, “Go back to New York!” (and remained standing). {See Be Old Now.}

There’s an episode of Judging Amy in which her future mother-in-law grills her on her philosophical stance, her position on “the world.” In response, a bemused Amy vigorously shakes her fist and cheers, “Go World!” The phrase comes off as silly and simplistic, so as this year’s Olympian theme it’s damn near perfect. Ah, but if only it were true! In fact, nobody’s shouting “Go World!” They’re shouting “Go USA” or “Go China” or “Go Italy.” Such fervid devotion to country always reminds me of a scene in Camelot, when Merlin teaches the boy Arthur how to “see as an eagle sees.” As an eagle, Arthur sees no boundaries, no countries—the point of the lesson.

John Lennon saw as an eagle sees. Imagine there’s no countries, he sang. Nothing to kill or die for. At the last Olympian opening ceremonies, Imagine was played as the athletes entered the arena. That’s right—the Parade of Countries took place against the backdrop of Imagine there’s no countries. Do these people even know what they’re doing?

I do know what national pride feels like, because just once I experienced it. In 1985, while We Are the World: USA For Africa was all the rage, my mother, sister and I were in Paris. We three quintessential Americans wandered into a small Tunisian café for lunch. No sooner were we seated than someone put on We Are The World. The Tunisian waiter came over and stood by our table, asking us, as each voice on the record joined in, who was who. As I later put it in a poem, Proudly we identified Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles. He expressed sympathy for Stevie Wonder who “no can look.” I tell you, I felt such a swelling of pride and even patriotism, my love for Bruce and Stevie and Bobby radiating out to…well…to the world. I suppose I have a right to be proud of the doings of rock ‘n’ roll musicians, since I’ve loved and supported them almost all my life. I wonder: is that what gives other people the right to be proud of basketball players? Because they’ve loved and supported them? Would I experience pride and patriotism if it were the New York Yankees beating up on other nations’ teams over there in China?

I suppose it’s possible. As things stand, though, I watch Olympic sports like swimming and acrobatics for the awesome spectacle of what the human body can do, the sheer beauty of these young people, and the joy evident on their faces. Beauty and joy are universal qualities devoid of national adjectives like Chinese, Latvian, American, Russian, French…

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