You may not be following the Twitter feeds of Wenlock and Mandeville, the terrifying claw-handed cylcops Olympic mascots soon to be starring in the night terrors of children the world over, but if you're like me, you're getting excited about the fact that the Games begin this weekend. There are a couple of reasons why I'm a huge Olympics fan. The first is that I enjoy the simplest competitions, the ones that test the limits of the human animal and harken back to the earliest athletic endeavors. I'm not too concerned about who'll win the gold in team handball, but I love watching things like track and field or swimming that seek to answer age-old questions like: How far can a guy throw a heavy rock? What about a spear? How high can someone jump? How fast can a person swim backwards? For the next four years, you couldn't get me to watch a weightlifting competition, but in the Olympics, burly guys and gals lifting things off the ground takes on a kind of majesty.
The other reason the Olympics are so cool is the fact that people from every corner of the globe come together to compete, which doesn't happen on anything like this scale at any other time. And that makes it a great time to indulge in some harmless fist-pumping patriotism, particularly if it's linked to a thoughtful appreciation for your country. I wrote about this four years ago:
As thrilling as the swimming, track, and other competitions have been, the moment of this Olympics I found most profound was the end of the men's gymnastics team competition. Each team sends three gymnasts to each apparatus, and on the last (the dreaded pommel horse) the United States was represented by Raj Bhavsar, Kevin Tan, and Alexander Artemev. Their scores weren't good enough to secure a victory (they won the bronze, and the favored Chinese team took the gold). But watching the United States represented by an Indian-American, a Chinese-American, and a Russian-American said more about what makes this country special than any collection of medals and world records.
Progressives don't spend as much time as they should talking about what makes our country unique, in no small part because we are attuned to its contradictions. After all, America has produced over three hundred Nobel Prize winners, nearly three times as many as any other country, yet only half of us acknowledge that human evolution occurred. Americans invented the airplane, the telephone, the polio vaccine and the Internet, yet we have a long and ignominious history of anti-intellectualism (enthusiastically embraced by one of our two major political parties). We have produced more wealth, innovation, and artistic dynamism than any country in history, yet our best-selling book of recent decades is a collection of dopey aphorisms and dime-store theology.
Ask Americans what makes their country great, and the first word out of most people's mouths will be "freedom." As a writer who makes a living doing things like calling the president a liar, I have an almost religious reverence for freedom, particularly freedom of speech. But though this was the first democracy, our freedom as Americans is now far from unique. If it's just about "freedom," then America is no more special than Sweden or Japan or Costa Rica.
No, it is the immigrant experience, on full view in the Olympics, that makes America unique. It invigorates our culture, it drives our progress, and it is a history in which each and every citizen plays a role. It isn't simply part of the American story, it is the American story. That ought to make us all proud.