The 2021 Summer Olympics have begun in Tokyo and I haven’t been less excited about the display of some of the world’s greatest athletes since, well, five — not four — years ago when the games were last played.
I am not sure why I lack enthusiasm but figure it is a combination of things — the truth that the competition hasn’t for a long time featured amateur athletes; the continued commercialization and politicization of the games; that the residents of the host country of Japan feel like their safety is being threatened as COVID is resurgent there; the decision not to allow fans to attend the events; or that the games are literally on the other side of the globe, making it likely I will know the winners in advance of watching them win.
The correct answer is all of the above, but I would assign the amateurism aspect the most weight. I already spend a good chunk of my life watching professional athletes compete against each other and that they will do so wrapped in a flag instead of stuffing their pockets with cash makes viewing more enticing, but only by a nose.
I’ve got an idea that will be a non-starter: Let’s do as many Japanese prefer, send all the athletes home to their corners of the world, and fill up the TV time by rebroadcasting the 1976 Summer Olympics, which began about two weeks after this nation’s 200th birthday, a time when America was awash in patriotism. All of America then was red, white and blue, not as we are now, just red and blue.
It was a grand time to be alive and an American even if that means of those alive then, many are dead now and the rest on the back side of life.
The 1976 Summer Olympics were held in Montreal and came four years after the tragedy in Munich, and my memory is that it was viewed globally very much as a struggle between good, that would be us Americans, and evil, which would be them thar commies in the Soviet Union.
The 1976 Summer Olympics produced a lot of iconic moments, including Sugar Ray Leonard, arguably the greatest boxer of all time pound for pound, winning the gold medal while fighting with a photo of his girlfriend taped to his socks.
Who can forget Bruce Jenner draped in an American flag — this is well before he lost his mind, his name and his pants — after winning the decathlon, manning up despite exhaustion during the 1,500-meter final to set an Olympic record?
That was the Olympics in which Nadia Comăneci, the Romanian gymnast, had all of the world cheering for her by demonstrating that perfection is not an impossible pursuit, garnering the first-ever 10.0, doing so not once, but seven times on the uneven bars — all as a 14-year-old.
All of that was great, but my attention was keen on the U.S. men’s basketball team that was trying to avenge the robbery from Munich, when the referees disregarded about seven rules violations by the Soviets and refused to allow the game to end until the last second off the clock assured an American defeat.
I was between my freshman and sophomore seasons at UNC and four of my dormmates at Granville Towers — Phil Ford, Tommy LaGarde, Walter Davis and Mitch Kupchak — were playing for Team USA, which was coached by none other than Dean Smith, who had been enlisted to replace longtime U.S. Olympic basketball coach Henry Iba, deemed out of touch with the current style of play. You can imagine the criticism that Smith faced by putting four Tar Heels on the team, but he favored team chemistry over a collection of individuals.
Smith was vindicated as Team USA recaptured the gold, not by defeating the Soviet Union, but by handling Yugoslavia, which had dispatched The Reds in the semifinals. The final score was 96-74 and Adrian Dantley led the Americans with 30 points while Kupchak added 14 and Ford dished out 12 assists.
All of America stood as one, cheering a team of true and baby-faced amateurs right the wrong of four years prior by defeating grown men who were paid to play.
The United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics that were held in Moscow, protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviets returned the insult by boycotting the 1984 Summer Olympics that were held in Los Angeles, beginning for me a 40-year decline of interest in the games. Politics makes worse everything.
I will probably watch some of the Olympics as it fits my schedule, cheering hard for any American who takes the stage and crossing my fingers that athlete will be upright with hand over heart if they make it to the winner’s podium as our national anthem blares.
I hope all Americans join me, but unlike in 1976, we are a fractured nation, one in which patriotism is seen as less virtue than vice. Those truly were the good old days.
Go Team USA.