For those who are not in the United Kingdom or don’t watch television, the BBC has replaced its normal “Breakfast News” show with “Olympic Breakfast”. This week, it’s been the first thing I see after I stumble bleary eyed from my seductively comfortable bed.
This morning, the programme featured the tail end of the women’s individual gymnastics competition. Historically, this has not been my favourite event to watch: I can’t help feeling that I’m witnessing the active exploitation of a bunch of underage girls. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental or comforting that the majority of their coaches appear to be older and male.
That said, I watched with interest as America’s Nastia Liukin (who thankfully was coached by her father) and Shawn Johnson won the gold and silver medals. It wasn’t their performances that particularly grabbed me, although they were brilliant, and I must admit I was touched by Shawn Johnson’s barely suppressed tears after just missing out on the gold. However, what caught my attention the most was how I felt after I heard the crowd begin to chant “USA! USA!”
I’ve been watching the Beijing Games every spare moment that I get; most of the time, if a Chinese athlete is in play, the local crowd shouts “China! China!”. In some instances this has been a deafening roar; I recall in particular how a women’s badminton match was so dominated by this cry of patriotism that it must have been difficult for the competitors to hear the referees.
Under normal circumstances, I’m mildly embarassed by the shouting of “USA! USA!” at sporting events. It is perhaps a function of having lived in Europe for over half my life: the idea that one has to support one’s home country by shouting its name seems odd. With the exception of football (soccer) matches, British people tend to make do with just waving a flag for the television cameras. However, there it was this morning, “USA! USA!” – and it was comforting.
It may be because of the setting. Beijing has done a very professional job in hosting the Games, though the half-empty seats indicate a serious lack of the joie de vivre which normally accompanies any Olympics. That said, it is not easy to escape the knowledge that this is a less than free country we’re peering into: the nervous face of the bronze winning Chinese female gymnast this morning spoke volumes. I’ve seen this tension in other events: the shouts of “China, China” made a pair of rowers work in 34 degree Celcius heat till it looked like their lungs would explode. A male Chinese weightlifter looked similarly on edge to me; it was a shakiness that broke into a smile of relief (rather than joy) after a successful lift.
These athletes know they are on the spot, and theirs is a regime that has a low tolerance for failure or imperfection: the rather callous manner in which they replaced a schoolgirl who sang the best with one who looked the best for the Opening Ceremony spoke volumes. The Chinese state behaves as if people are tools, a means to an end, not as individuals who have merit and worth in and of themselves.
“USA, USA” sounds like a rebuke under these circumstances. No one except the most blinkered patriot would dare say that the United States is a perfect country; as an American living abroad, I get to hear about its faults more than most. But I would like to attribute many of my attitudes and beliefs to my origins, including my convictions about the value of egalitarianism, the idea that we all have rights, and my faith in individuals’ ability to achieve self-actualisation.
When I see that a colleague of mine has been swindled by a former landlord of his, my first response is to say, “Sue them!” Go forth, get justice, don’t back down till you do! This is an overtly American idea.
When I discover that people are rising in position or standing due to who they know rather than what they know or what they’ve achieved, I am outraged. This too perhaps is an American instinct.
When I witness something as simple as a little girl being denied the chance to perform to billions around the world merely because her face is deemed a bit too pudgy and her teeth a bit too crooked, I want whoever responsible to pay with more than a few strips torn out of their career’s hide. This yearning is likely also American in its vehemence.
Behind it all lies an idea that is elegantly expressed in our Constitution’s preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union”. Note the words, “more perfect”; with this phrase, the Founding Fathers say utopia has not been achieved. Rather, it is a drive, and an instinct that has been put into the nation’s DNA from its very start. What matters is working towards that “more perfect Union”, and “more perfect” justice. It is not a destination, but a journey.
Yes, the odyessy sometimes gets terribly skewed. It’s not at all wrong to say that for the past eight years that a massive detour has been taken, and so many signposts of our progress have been removed. Sadly, even in a “more perfect” society, progress is not in a straight line. But at least America can and should know better. This is the first step towards being better.
Extensive repairs are necessary. We’re in a world where more nations are like China than they are on the “more perfect” road. The brutality we’ve witnessed in the conflict between Russia and Georgia shows how thin the veneer of peace and civilised behaviour can be. A new thesis is emerging, which states that individual justice does not matter so long as economic growth is achieved; the implications for individual liberty to say nothing of the global environment, could not be greater.
Other nations know this, and rightly afraid. The reason why Barack Obama got such a rapturous reception when he visited Berlin, Paris and London is simple: while Bush has damaged America’s reputation, the ideas that America represents are not dead, and Europeans want America to stand for hope and inspiration once more. Obama, under these circumstances, is a symbol of restoration.
I am an American and proud to be so; more specifically, I am proud of much of what we are, and even more proud of what we are supposed to be. This is not a pride that implies superiority, but confidence, not perfection, but a commitment to the pursuit of excellence. Hopefully this year will be one of signs, symbols and deeds that plant the seeds of patriotic renewal, so America can carry on the journey it was meant to continue.