Celebrating the first Ameriad of the modern era, I declare open the Americ Games of Los Angeles
As the band plays our national anthem, the theme from Picnic, let's go to the victory stand, where the medals for Large Boor Freestyle Jingoism are being awarded. Who will the judges pick for the gold? Southern Californian fans? The American Broadcasting Company? The Los Angeles Americ Organizing Committee (LAAOC)?
If there's a warrant out for Bobby Knight in Puerto Rico, if patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, why is anybody from the U.S. walking around free in L.A.?
Oh, what we've done to the Olympics. The Soviets & Co. perverted them by not coming, but it seems we've done as much violence to them by our presence. God only knows what the 2.5 billion people around the globe who are watching the Games will think of a vain America, so bountiful and strong, with every advantage, including the home court, reveling in the role of Goliath, gracelessly trumpeting its own good fortune while rudely dismissing its guests. At best, we've been dreadful hosts; at worst, we've revealed ourselves as bullies—of our friendly competition and of an ideal—because in these Americ Games there has been no room for those who failed, or for those poor, huddled masses of athletes who dared come from foreign lands. Sadly, the one sustaining vision of these Games is of swimmer Rick Carey, the sulky American backstroker, pouting because, though he had won a gold medal, he didn't set a world record.
The foreigners probably were being more kindly toward us than we deserved, although some competitors who had been in Moscow in '80 maintained that the state-controlled press there was fairer to outsiders than the capitalistic press here. Monique Berlioux, the director of the International Olympic Committee, was more direct. Speaking of the ill-mannered fans, the booboisie of the bleachers, she snapped, "They are like children." And, she added, "We have in French a word for this—chauvinistes." And then she went on to criticize ABC.
In this she had plenty of company, most especially including her boss, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who wrote a letter of complaint, protesting the network's tasteless flag-waving. Still, although ABC (Always Be Cheerleaders) must accept a large measure of obloquy for its part in sabotaging the Olympic spirit, it certainly wasn't the only culprit. Among the national publications, for example,
was positively orgiastic in its us-ism, saluting what it called America's "supportmanship" with a display of saber rattling not seen since Hearst took us to war against Spain.
The Los Angeles press wasn't so narrow as it was pious. The overlong halftime show that passed for an opening ceremony was solemnized locally as some kind of patriotic eucharist: "We saw America at its best at the Coliseum yesterday," intoned the Times; " L.A. remakes the Olympics in its own image," revealed the Herald Examiner. The show thus successfully completed a process whereby Southern Californians, and many other Americans, were made to believe that the Olympics were really some kind of ancient U.S. institution that good taxpayers should support (the code word always employed). When the Olympic torch was carried into L.A., for example, veterans groups lined the streets, selling American flags. Good grief, given this sort of thing, an argument can be made that ABC wasn't so guilty of trying to manipulate us as it was of having been manipulated itself.
Right out of the box, it was America, first and only. Foreign athletes came to be dismissed as foils, necessary evils such as Joe Louis's Bums of the Month or the Harlem Globetrotters' Washington Generals. You want foreigners? Go down to Disneyland and see It's A Small World. There we got foreigners. One night, at the volleyball competition, the P.A. announcer said he had a medal result. It was in some cycling event. The gold, he said, went to an American, and he gave the cyclist's name. Cheers! U!S!A! U!S!A! The bronze also went to an American, and he gave the name. Cheers! U!S!A! U!S!A! He didn't even mention the silver medalist's name. Foreigner. At the gymnastics, when the teams would enter, a melody would be played for each nation: bullfight stuff for the Spaniards, shogun stuff for the Japanese, and so on. For the American women they played, if you can believe this—When the Saints Go Marching In. Saints! And when the canonized little dolls had the audacity to lose to some foreigners, ABC cut away before another country's anthem could sully our ears. From the first day, the fans were primed and ready; and they didn't have to take their cues from ABC or anybody else. Rodgers and Hammerstein advised us that you have to be taught to hate, but, as we learned in L.A., gloating comes instinctively.
Why? Almost from the first there was speculation that this was some sort of delayed, misplaced defensive reaction to the national travails of Vietnam and Watergate. But, for goodness' sake, they were a decade or more ago. More prosaically, it must not be forgotten that some Olympic sports are dreadful spectator events. ABC never gets enough credit for picking and snacking so skillfully through this often unsavory smorgasbord and making home viewers think all Olympic competitions are exciting. But for those who bought tickets and found themselves quickly bored, acting like Berlioux's rude children, hollering U!S!A!, U!S!A!, ignoring our guests and distracting them were the only ways to pass the time.
On television, for the world, these were a nation's Olympics, but on the scene, in so many ways, they belonged strictly to Southern California. Seventy-five percent of the tickets were sold to locals, so when you factor in the few foreigners who dressed up the place—Hollywood extras—you're left with probably 80% or 90% of the chanting chauvinistes coming from greater L.A. And for many of them, what were the Olympics but another new franchise in town: the L.A. Raiders, Clippers, Lazers, Olympians. This everyday hometown spirit is all the more understandable when you remember that, unlike other Olympics, these Games were being held largely at old familiar sites, with local kids playing. More than 40% of the U.S. team—240 of its 597 members—came from a single state. If California had entered as a nation—now there's a thought—it would have had more competitors than all but five countries.