American Men of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad

The Games of the XXXI Olympiad are over and now we can make a few assessments based on the results. I think we all agree that the gold medals won in any Olympics can say a great deal about the culture of a particular nation. For example, the country of Georgia and the two separate republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia–all three nation states in the Caucus region of west-Central Asia, won their Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling and weightlifting, Tae Kwon Do and, again, freestyle wrestling, respectively. These are clearly tough, warrior nations where their men come from a culture of fighters.

Let us look now at the young men representing the United States of America, who in 2016 won gold in only six categories that are distinctly divided along racial lines. As has always been the case, the arenas where we are strongest remain the swimming pool, the field, the track and the basketball court. Whites seem to be our swimmers. Whites from Oregon are our stone throwers and distance runners; whilst blacks are our jumpers (long, triple and hurdles), sprinters and basketball players. Our decathlon champion was apparently a thought-out mixture of both white and black and was (just to be safe?) from Oregon. Then our team always has at least one champion in freestyle wrestling. Not historically strong in cycling, we nevertheless have won gold for two consecutive Olympiads in the American sport of bicycle motocross racing. Both latter events are also typically white-American events. What can this say about our young men of today’s culture?

Well, certainly ours is a nation of swimming enthusiasts. This speaks to our affluence, with gymnasium pools and home pools being so prevalent that most of our middle class and upper class children learn to swim recreationally from an early age. The black Americans, who typically come from poorer families and neighborhoods, have less access to pools and so they rely on their land legs for speed and long jumps. Basketball courts are plentiful in even the poorest neighborhoods. Basketball remains the most American sport in the world. Unlike baseball and American football, which have their roots in English cricket and rugby, basketball was conceived entirely here. In my day, it was dominated by lily-white jocks practicing drills. Today, it is largely a black-American sport with individual personalities and performers pulled together by coaches and constant practice to form an unstoppable team. Our white young men do well in the shot-put, the bicycle motocross, the 1500-meter race and freestyle wrestling. Decathlons, stone throwing, long jumps and the 1500-meter run speak to an adherence to Olympic tradition. For all of their lack of historical knowledge, Americans, if nothing else, do value tradition. Bicycle motocross represents grunginess and sense of adventure and danger. Freestyle wrestling means ours is still a nation of scrappy fighters.

So; let us look at how the young American men have changed since my day. Besides a strong focus on swimming, athletics and wrestling (where we were regularly champions in as many as three weight classes), we had the best boxers in the world. We were even more nautical then, beyond simply the swimming pool. We controlled events in diving, rowing and sailing. To be fair, these three were sports practiced by the upper classes. At one time, many universities of privileged students produced some of our best individual athletes. More often today we see many middle class and even poor parents pushing and even forcing their children into sports, which those parents seem to increasingly view as a form of celebrity rather than a celebration of physical prowess. But I’ll talk another time on how various classes tend to ruin everything they touch. In my day, we had more champion weightlifters. And shooting was absolutely one of our stronger events, being the armed nation that we are. I find it ironic that our men seem to lack this today. I suppose it was the middle of the 1960s where things started to change. Everything became political. We were in a major war at the time and some of our best potential athletes were finding themselves conscripted into the army. Also, while we were fighting wars, Europe and Asia were rapidly recovering from the devastation of the Second Great War. Their nations began fielding better teams that could outperform ours.

In 2016, it was our female champions who brought the United States up to gold in 46 events. If we counted only our male athletes, we won gold medals in only 18 events. This would put us behind the United Kingdom’s male athletes, who won gold in 19 events. In addition to basketball, swimming, wrestling and athletics, our women led in gymnastics, cycling, judo, rowing, shooting, water polo and the triathlon. Some might say this is indicative of sexism, where we are more apt to encourage our daughters into physical aptitude rather than educational. But I disagree. I see this as a reflection of our equality since women can do more and are encouraged to perform in our democratic society. Nations that truly repress women would not have strong female teams. Or it just could mean women have more time on their hands.