by Glen Hamilton
Frequently, when people become overly concerned with the moral health of the world or a country, my usual response is “People always remember the assholes because kindness and decency are not that newsworthy.” I have been forced to use this rationale a lot lately while watching a couple of American Olympic athletes’ spectacularly bad behavior in Rio.
After earning several medals, American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s adventure in bad judgement, clueless racism, and dishonesty, has gathered a lot of attention. Hope Solo’s breathtakingly bad sportsmanship earlier has almost been forgotten. In fairness to Solo, her complaint about losing to a team playing defensively was depressingly familiar. At this year’s Euro football tournament in France earlier this summer, other participants had similar complaints. Belgium’s (now fired) manager Marc Wilmots complained about Italy’s defensive posture in the game where they eliminated his team from the tournament. Portuguese mega-star Christiano Ronoldo had the same complaint about Iceland’s defensive play as well. Both were mercilessly derided for forgetting that an attacking team’s job is to break down defenses and score goals, not bitch about their failure after the fact. Before leaving for the Rio Olympics, Solo posted a tweet that rudely referenced Zika. At least Ronoldo somehow avoided sending a douche-y tweet about Dengue fever before his arrival at the Brazil’s World Cup in 2014.
A lot people have written incisively about how these stories relate to white privilege in America, while others have illustrated how these stories dovetail with a rich country’s perspective of cities in the Global South. I am not going to dwell on those issues because smarter people than me have already weighed in on them. Nor am I going to examine the conduct of the athletes in Rio. Instead, I’m focusing on how American notions about the Olympic Games are framed by its historical relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Although most countries endured the travails of the amateurism from the 60s to the 80s, few places were affected as dramatically or for as long a time as the United States. In addition to exercising power over athletes, amateurism policies functioned to marginalize lucrative team sports within the movement. While soccer was able to find a space for international play for its professionals, North American team sports with an international footprint like ice hockey and basketball were unable to find traction. In the 1980s European hockey and basketball leagues found a work-around within the Olympic movement and were able play. At the same time, NBA and NHL players from any country were unable to compete because of league-specific bans. I joked at the time that the anti-apartheid movement would have killed for that kind of international compliance for a sports ban.
The net effect in America was a heightened bifurcation between serious professional sports and marginal amateur ones. This contrast was heightened in the 1970s when the Olympics became a breathtakingly lucrative television enterprise in the United States. In the midst of the conservative backlash of that decade, hardworking, self-sacrificing, and authentic Olympians were seen as much more virtuous than their greedy, arrogant professional counterparts. This took place at a time when African Americans were coming to dominate popular American sports.
While much of the overt racial baggage has been shed, large sections of this narrative persist. One only has to encounter the almost instinctive criticism of many American sports fans about the NBA’s participation in the Olympics. They may not be pissed off at Jesse Jackson anymore, but it sure sounds like they have been listening to someone who was. Despite their reputation, the 2016 American basketball team has been frightfully well-behaved and includes players such as Kevin Durant, someone who is almost cartoonishly laden with wholesome, authentic family values. Carmelo Anthony displayed more quality insight during a short visit to a local favela than most of the American broadcasting team has for the entire Games, save Matt Laurer’s favela tour with Theresa Williamson.
Part of the reason that these notions continue to persist is that until the early 90s, the IOC only recognized American amateur bodies that propagated versions of the amateur story to suit their needs. Later American Olympic broadcasters continued to implicitly support the positive authentic fiction about amateur athletes while trying to avoid vilifying the professional athletes they routinely televised before and after the Olympics. But the American media very rarely advocates for the unromantic, if completely accurate, notion that Olympians are incredibly talented professionals in their field. Unfortunately for current broadcaster NBC, borrowing a framework from 1970s America comes with echoes of the vicious racialized and gendered political fights over forced busing and the ERA. And this makes their coverage even more fraught than usual.
Getting back to Solo and Lochte. While Solo plays in a sport recognized in the popular mind with professionalism, the reaction to her Olympic transgressions was swift and disapproving. In short, the world seemed to be saying, “You are understandably angry about losing but OMG!” In Lochte’s case, NBC was quite fair about the incident. But there was a palpable sense underlying their coverage that they wanted that guy to be telling the truth because that was a narrative they preferred. Alas, it didn’t work. Americans can be quite ruthless to athletes who lie. Thanks for nothing Lance Armstrong.