You'd think that an international athletic competition known for its heavy nationalist overtones and that the United States has historically dominated would be just the thing for the flag-waving MAGA crowd. But no, the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics has become the latest target of conservative cancel culture.
As the Games began last Saturday, former President Donald Trump got the Olympics hate-race off to a flying start at a rally in Phoenix. Pointing to the U.S. women's soccer team's surprising 3-0 loss to Sweden, Trump blamed the upset on some of the American players' having taken a knee to protest racism right before the game began. That the winning Swedish players had also joined in the act did nothing to keep Trump from asserting that "wokeism makes you lose." Encouraging the Phoenix crowd to boo the team's performance,Trump claimed Americans were happy about the team's loss because it proved "woke politics" was ruining the nation. "Woke politics," Trump said, "takes the life and joy out of everything."
Trump would know about taking the life and joy out of everything. Yet the former president is hardly alone in attacking the Olympics – and the American team – this year. Indeed, he's been joined by a robust chorus on the right who have made Olympic hating their sport. On Fox News, the network has taken time out from its dangerous anti-vaccination message to regularly knock Team USA. The Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren opened her Monday show with an extended rant about the "Woke-lympics." Team USA, she said, is the "largest group of whiny social justice activists the Olympics has seen in decades."
While Lahren could win a gold medal in whining, it's worth pointing out that, like much of conservative logic these days, her argument doesn't hold up against the facts. Lahren and other conservative commentators contend that the U.S. athletes care more about politics than about their sports – and that this is why Team USA isn't winning.
But that's just not true. While Team USA did fail to medal on the first day of the Games – something that hadn't happened since 1972 and a development that seemed to make some Fox News personalities almost giddy with the chance to America-bash – it was no indication of future performance. For one, as many have pointed out, the first day's events were in sports in which the U.S. historically hasn't exceled. More importantly, after the first day Team USA quickly raced to the front of the medal count where it will probably remain.
Which makes you wonder who is really injecting politics into these Games. Definitely, some American athletes are speaking out and using their brief media spotlights to point to the issues they care about. And it's easier for them to do so this year thanks to a recent revision of the International Olympic Committee's guidelines which gives greater leeway to how competitors can "express their views."
That change reflects the IOC's understanding that the Olympics have always been political events as much as they have been sporting competitions. From the 1936 Games in Hitler's Berlin to the 1968 Mexico City Games shortly after Martin Luther King's assassination to the dueling U.S.-Soviet boycotts of the 1980s, athletes and nations both have used the Games as a site of protest, propaganda, and uncritical patriotism. The very nature of the Games itself is political, of course, a showcase of nationalism and clear proof of global power imbalances set against its message of internationalism and unity. That athletes have sometimes brought their own causes to their competitions only underscores how much the Olympics matter as something far bigger than what happens on the playing field.
Today's conservatives understand this too. Currently, Republicans are debating whether the U.S. should participate in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics given China's terrible human rights violations. Channeling Trumpian bravado, Sen. Ted Cruz has said the U.S. ought to go and "kick their commie a**es," while a group of House Republicans along with some Democrats have called for a U.S. boycott. Last month, Sen. Tom Cotton sent President Joe Biden a letter asking what the federal government's plans are for ensuring the "safety, security, and privacy of Americans who attend." It's a good debate to have. It also demonstrates that the Olympics never take place in a bubble untouched by political concerns.
Fox News' attention to the Iranian defector Saied Mollaei dedicating his silver medal in judo to Israel, further belies the network's disingenuous contention that politics has no place at the Games. The "shut up and dribble" position they've taken when U.S. athletes speak out about racial injustice or gender inequality only highlights how much conservative media outlets aren't focused on the actual athletic results but rather on how they can use the Olympics to stir up their audience's outrages and grievances.
"The Olympics and sports are about bringing people together beyond the issues of the day," Fox News' Tammy Bruce smugly asserted the other night as she lashed out at U.S. athletes for being "more interested in scoring woke points than actual ones."
In obsessing over these small examples of political expression and in pushing an inaccurate narrative of American decline at the Games, Bruce and other conservative commentators show that they are really the ones politicizing the Olympics, turning it into their latest culture war battlefield.