It’s not about gold, it’s about sending a message

The Olympics have finished, and we finally have a chance for retrospection. The Olympics have finished, and we have lost.

Don’t tell me we have the most medals, list us first and pretend that matters. Don’t tell me we still got second and ought be pleased with ourselves for that. Don’t tell me the Chinese girls cheated and are younger than they claim to be and our poor 16-year-olds didn’t have a chance.

We lost, and I don’t care if it’s basketball, diving or dressage, we ought to bring home the gold. We ought to win. We’re American. That’s what we do; that’s who we are.

I don’t think about the 100-meter butterfly but once every four years, and if Americans lose all the international swimming championships between now and 2012, I won’t hear of it, much less care. But Olympics have about as much to do with sports as flags do with stitching.

They’re a material excuse for immaterial, passionate feelings. We don’t care about our athletes as people but as champions, nor the vast majority of their events, which are practically inconsequential. We care that our superiority as a nation is continually affirmed and reaffirmed through competition. This year our superiority was not reaffirmed. This year we lost. This year, China beat us, and for that there is no excuse.

I’m exaggerating, obviously, but only exaggerating, not fibbing.

The Olympics are chauvinistic nonsense expressed in the form of mock war. Well, we just lost the Second Sino-American War. We could murder a billion Chinese with nukes, could cripple their infrastructure and economy with missiles and conventional bombing, and our country would remain mostly physically intact. At the present time and for the foreseeable future, China isn’t another Soviet Union. Their military is 7 million strong and can’t be used against any Americans not already in the neighborhood.

But they’re scary to us because they’re on the way up, and we, well, we aren’t. Or at least we aren’t going up quite so fast as we once were. In the 19th century, we knew our best times as a country were ahead. In the late ’40s, we were responsible for half the world’s industrial output and were the only nation on earth still materially capable of waging war. Things have gotten better for us since, but we were at our best then.

China believes the 21st century is theirs just as much as the 20th was ours. The past two centuries or so have been hiccups for the Middle Kingdom that brought civilization paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. They — all billion of them — are simply rising to their natural place.

Actually, they’re just rising, and no one knows how high they’ll go or what route they’ll take; each arch is different. Japan rapidly modernized, militarized and even more rapidly collapsed. Then the Japanese became mighty, superior exporters that terrified American prognosticators until the ’90s when the bubble finally burst.


China has no destiny or set path, but they do have ambition we sorely lack. We’re on top and want to remain there. Current generations don’t want to exceed our parents, just live comfortably. At most we want to be celebrities. For anything whatsoever. We expect to win the Olympics, but the Chinese wanted to and did — against some of our most motivated people.

A nation isn’t great because it succeeds in the Olympics, but somehow great nations do. If we want to win Olympics 50 years from now, we ought worry how well children know math and physics, not how well they can run, swim and shoot.

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