Through the first week of the Rio Games, it was moving to see so much of what’s lately been generating anxieties at home contribute so powerfully to U.S. preeminence on the international stage. If race, gender, immigration and even our definitions of success are dividing us as citizens and voters, they’re uniting us, if only temporarily, as fans of Team USA.
In the women’s gymnastics competition, our national strength comes from diversity.
Reigning world champion Simone Biles, gold medalist in the individual and team all-around competitions, is African-American, as is Gabby Douglas, who won gold medals in those events at the 2012 London Olympics. Laurie Hernandez is Puerto Rican, and the team is rounded out by two white gymnasts, Aly Raisman, who is Jewish, and Madison Kocian.
This lineup stands out in a political season animated by a dark winner-take-all mentality suggesting that success for one group of Americans can come only at the expense of another.
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The irony is that what makes for a divisive falsehood in an election is, in fact, true of Olympic gymnastics. Only five women could make the U.S. national team. Rules preventing one country from crowding out others mean that only two U.S. women could reach the finals for the individual events; Hernandez, for example, would be competing in Tuesday’s floor exercise final if Biles and Raisman hadn’t qualified with even higher scores.
If Biles weren’t so broadly dominant, and if women’s coach Martha Karolyi weren’t known for putting together Olympic teams with a strong balance of skills, it might be easy for viewers to fragment into partisan rooting factions, cheering one gymnast over the other. Instead, their accomplishments feel collective, their individual excellence lifting the team as a whole. And, in a small way, their victories belong to all of us, putting the lie to the idea that we can’t succeed together.
Over at the aquatics stadium, a different facet of U.S. achievement has been front and center. Swimmers from a number of countries spoke out against competitors caught using performance-enhancing drugs in the past, with American Lilly King’s condemnation of Russia’s Yulia Efimova attracting particular attention. Episodes of wagged fingers and splashed water have been read as the latest and wettest – if not the coldest – chapter in the fraught relationship between these two nations.
But King’s gestures resonate for a different reason. At a moment when the authenticity of Republican Donald Trump’s business success has become an important issue in the presidential election, it’s heartening to see Americans abroad argue that when we win, we want it to be real – even if that means disavowing accomplishments we come by dishonestly, as King has done in condemning Americans who are competing in Rio despite past failed drug tests. Trump may be able to conceal his true wealth by refusing to release his tax returns, and to hire foreign workers to staff his properties even as he promises to bring jobs back to America, but in the Rio pool you can’t rely on prestidigitation to claim the gold.
Similarly, as Trump’s campaign continues to smash invaluable international and political norms, whether he’s pondering the use of nuclear weapons, the assassination of his opponent or an amped-up use of torture, there is power in seeing an American declare that we define ourselves in part by what we don’t do.
You’ve probably noticed another theme of the Rio Olympics: the prominence of American women. Whether it’s swimmer Katie Ledecky’s and Biles’ supremacy, or King’s emergence as a moral voice in the doping controversy, women have given U.S. audiences some of their strongest occasions to cheer.
Also noteworthy are the contributions that immigrants – including Australian-born basketball player Kyrie Irving, who in 2012 decided not to play for his country of birth so he would be eligible to compete for a spot on Team USA – are making to the United States’ medal count.
In a political context, reactions to our country’s increasing diversity, the prospect of female leadership, the presence of immigrants and contested ideas about what constitutes genuine success have congealed into a moment of extraordinary ugliness. Yet when we measure ourselves against other nations, we see the beauty and strength in inclusivity and integrity.
Speaking on the campaign trail Thursday, Hillary Clinton used Team USA’s success to blast Trump, suggesting that if American athletes feared the outside world as much as her competitor did, “Michael Phelps and Simone Biles would be cowering in the locker room.”
She could have made a simpler point. As Rio is making unmistakably clear, the parts of American life that Trump wants to change to “make America great again” are some of the very things that make America great just as it is.
The Washington Post
Alyssa Rosenberg’s politics and culture blog appears online at washingtonpost.com/blogs/act-four.