The Olympic Games have always been an opportunity for Americans to come together under their flag. This is no longer the case.
With the women’s volleyball team’s win at the very last minute, on the last day of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the United States was able to finish first on the medal count — for both number of gold medals and total medals. In the current geopolitical context, there was something particularly remarkable for the Americans in passing China, in second place by a margin: of one gold medal.
We could have been tempted to believe that, under the circumstances, it would be a time of euphoria and national celebration. This is not at all what is happening.
The political positions taken by American athletes are nothing new, of course. History is packed with them, from Muhammad Ali condemning the Vietnam war by refusing the draft, to the Phoenix Suns players wearing sweatshirts renaming the team “Los Suns” in protest of an Arizona state law against undocumented immigration. Among the most spectacular political movements in sports, that of the champions of athleticism, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, at the Mexico Games in 1968 has a spot on the podium: They raised their fists, a symbol of “Black power” during the medal ceremony.
But these occurrences remain isolated. The majority of Americans, even during more troubling periods, stay behind their flag and their teams. Sports normally serve as an culturally unifying element; the Olympic Games, as a nationally unifying element.
But times have changed.
The last few years leading up to the Tokyo Games were the stage for one controversy after another, in sports and politics: professional team name changes, whether it be the Washington Redskins (now Football Team) or the Cleveland Indians (now Guardians); the Dallas Mavericks’ refusal to play the American national anthem; the NFL players kneeling during the anthem, starting with ex-quarterback Colin Kaepernick; Donald Trump’s words, during his first year in the White House, calling Kaepernick and his followers “sons of bitches;” the subsequent refusal by entire teams of their invitation to the White House after winning a championship, as is tradition; and so forth.
In other words, the world of high-level sports has become profoundly politicized in the United States.
The Games Are No Stranger, Either
That means that even gymnast Simone Biles and her voluntary withdrawal from the competition for mental health reasons, which had no fundamental political reasons, provoked passionate partisan reactions everywhere. Some of the most loyal individuals to Trump called her a “selfish sociopath;” some of the most critical individuals of Trump ran to her defense just as quickly.
She became a symbol: a lack of patriotism on one side, a woman and ethnic minority having valued her rights on the other. In fact, no one among these people knew her personally.
Political polarization is exacerbated when politically engaged athletes are involved, notably Megan Rapinoe, co-captain of the Women’s U.S. soccer team, who among others refused to visit Trump’s White House after their victory at the 2019 World Cup. The former president did not wait for the end of the Tokyo Games to return the favor to Rapinoe, publishing an official report from his Mar-a-Lago residence, after the U.S. women’s team was defeated in the semifinals, in which he mocked her, saying, “The woman with the purple hair played terribly.”
In the end, a good number of supporters of the nationalist ex-president found comfort in the defeat — of the national team.
If that seems backward, it could be because of the logical sequence of a social phenomenon much larger than the Olympic Games: the crumbling of common culture in the United States. The Tokyo Games are just the most recent and striking illustration.