Opinion

Why America's Olympic team is an implicit rebuke to Donald Trump

This America is a black girl and a Jewish girl hugging after blowing everyone's mind with their skills and winning gold and silver in gymnastics — not the xenophobic vulgarian promising to build walls along our borders

Thirty-two years ago, the Olympic Games had a profound effect on an American presidential campaign. With a strong economy behind him, Ronald Reagan was running for re-election under the slogan "Morning in America." His ads were full of patriotic imagery and words of confidence. And by happy coincidence, the Games were held in Los Angeles that year.

Even better, because the Soviet Union and many of its satellite states (including East Germany) boycotted the 1984 Games in retaliation for the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, the Americans pretty much had the field to themselves. The result was, as Donald Trump might put it, so much winning we almost got tired of winning. The U.S. won 83 of the 226 gold medals awarded, more than four times as many as any other country, and 174 of 688 medals overall. The whole thing was so flag-wavingly spectacular that it felt almost like a two-week-long ad for Reagan's campaign. As William Greider wrote that December:

ABC's coverage was an orgy of patriotic hype, jingoistic cheerleading by supposedly detached sports commentators, and a series of minimelodramas in which heroic young Americans struggled against foreigners with strange names. ''The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,'' as [ABC executive Roone] Arledge would say. The montage of Olympic images delivered an implicit political message: America is back; America is standing tall; America is winning. Foreigners are the enemy, the losers. [Rolling Stone]

The Olympics in Rio this year aren't sending a message that's nearly so explicitly tied to one candidate's campaign. But in their way, they're a rebuke to Donald Trump and what he represents.

If you had the stamina to sit through the parade of nations in the opening ceremonies, you probably noticed something distinctive about the U.S. team — as you would have at every other Olympics. Look at the teams from China or Nigeria or Russia or most countries, and you'll see that most of the athletes look an awful lot alike. The U.S. team, on the other hand, stands out for its diversity. In the U.S. squad, you can see people of all colors who can trace their origins to every corner of the globe. They have names like Ross and Smith and Thompson, but also Gonzales and Wang and Fa'avesi and Nwaba and Pongnairat.

Forty-seven of the American athletes were born in other countries, and who knows how many others are the children of immigrants. This year we saw the first African-American woman to win gold in swimming (Simone Manuel), and the first American to compete wearing a hijab (fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad).

I can't speak for anyone else, but when I watch the Olympics, it's that diversity that makes me proudest of my country, even more than all the success. Yes, it's just sports, and yes, the Olympic committees are corrupt. But it's also a way for us to put on display the America we want to be and to show the world. That America is the black girl and the Jewish girl hugging after blowing everyone's mind with their skills and winning gold and silver in gymnastics, not the xenophobic vulgarian promising to build walls along our borders.

And this gets to what's so deeply troubling about Donald Trump's campaign: Not just that he's divisive, but that what he is working so hard to undermine is the very thing that makes America so extraordinary. The fact that people all over the world want to come here isn't a problem to solve, it's the single most critical source of our strength. We draw strivers and workers and dreamers from everywhere, and in every generation they change and renew the country they join.

That's always going to be uncomfortable for some, and that discomfort will always be waiting for political exploitation. But America's economic and scientific and cultural dominance is a direct product of immigration. It's why we win more Nobel prizes than anyone, and why so many of the companies that change the world start here, and why people listen to American music and watch American movies no matter where they live or what language they speak.

When Trump says that America is a pit of despair where nobody wins, he's talking about the fact that America today looks different from the one he grew up in. And the people who nod their heads and shake their fists at his rallies, who get incensed when they hear someone speaking Spanish, who want to build those walls and ban people who worship the wrong god, they too want to turn back the clock to the way it used to be.

They're right that the country has changed around them. No matter when you're born, the America that exists when you're 70 years old, as Trump is, will be different from the one you grew up in. People will look different, they'll be eating food you find strange, they'll be listening to music you don't like, they'll be talking in ways you can't follow. That's the whole point.

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