Superpower spectators

Houston, TX

By international standards, and as anyone who has been following this thread will know, I’m generally a fairly pro-American fellow. Except when it comes to the Olympic Games.

Perhaps due to a characteristically Australian penchant for underdogs or a desire to experience the pleasant feels of witnessing hitherto unprecedented national glory like Fiji’s Gold in the rugby sevens, whatever the reason, I have traditionally tended to find myself backing whoever is opposing the US, even nations that I would consider geopolitically antagonistic (but I suppose the Olympics is all about putting politics aside).

For the first few events of the Rio 2016 games, currently in full swing, this long-formed habit was fully on display, as I cheered on Egyptian beach volleyballers, Korean archers and Aussie breaststrokers – much to the chagrin of my more jingoistic American friends.

But as the Games has entered its second week, and I have become exposed to hour after hour of enthusiastic and infectious patriotism on the NBC network, I must admit my historical hostility to Team USA has started to dissipate.

Or, to put it in distinctly American terms, I have been drinking the Kool-Aid.

The fact that the US medal tally, even by its own usually-dominant standards, has dwarfed that of any challenger has certainly aided this process (as has the fact that, a good opening night in the pool notwithstanding, Australia’s bling-acquiring efforts have been relatively lacklustre). Michael Phelps has cemented himself as the most decorated Olympian in the modern era, Katie Ledecky smashed the 800-metre freestyle world record and Houston local Simone Biles has led a team of phenomenally talented young American gymnasts who have been spectacular to watch, demonstrating the very limits of human physical and mental achievement as only the Olympics can.

These are just a few of the highlights of the American competitors, who, at the time of writing, have clocked up 86 medals, well ahead of its nearest rivals Great Britain and China, at 50 and 52 respectively.

Watching the world’s greatest sporting event from the vantage point of Middle America offers a telling insight into the national psyche. Witnessing the sheer dominance of the American athletes and the reaction to it – in television studios and in living rooms – creates a greater understanding of the exceptionalism that drives much of American public life and foreign policy i.e. the belief that the US is not just another country, but is in some way special and pre-destined for glory.

Indeed, while there is no shortage of cheers and tears and cheesy TV montages of birthday parties sacrificed and challenges overcome, there is also an underlying expectation of success – a cocksure conviction that ‘merica will prevail because ‘merica, that’s why.

No-one seems surprised that the medal stack is so high, only pleasantly satisfied that the differential between the US and the next inferior challenger is larger than it has been in some time. Meanwhile, from other spectators there is an ambivalence about the Olympics in general, a bemusement with all the hype, as though we were talking about the World Series or Super Bowl.

All of these responsive behaviours are reminders that Americans still very much see their global hegemony as current and assured. And the Rio 2016 tally gives them little reason to believe that they are wrong.

I imagine the Romans felt a similarly unsurprised but unashamed satisfaction when their centurions returned home successful from the latest conquest, or when a British Naval commander inspected a man-of-war superior to any that had ever been built.

It is, quite simply, a symptom of superpower.

When the last of the samba dancers exit stage at next week’s Closing Ceremony, and eyes return to the presidential election, it will be interesting to see whether a medal-induced euphoria and newfound spate of positive national sentiment will have an impact on the polls.

After all, the underlying premise of the “Make America Great Again” mantra is that the United States is in decline, that it’s best years lie in the past and it has entered an economic and cultural malaise requiring an unconventional saviour.

The opposing campaign would do well to recall that well-worn chant of youth sporting events:

“Look at the scoreboard!”

U.S. gymnasts and gold medalists (from left) Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Lauren Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman stand for the medal ceremony. The Americans lived up to expectations, overwhelming their competition.

Image source: Associated Press

Published on 17 August 2016