Just over a week ago, news surrounding the 31st Olympiad sounded bleak: The water is dirty. The athletes are doping. If the violence in Brazil doesn’t kill you, Zika probably will.
The narrative within the United States mirrored that metaphorical dumpster fire. Police are shooting unarmed black men. Transgender folks can’t use the bathrooms they need. A carrot top masquerading as an actual presidential candidate wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and bar entry to Muslims.
And so during the Aug. 5 opening ceremonies, it was easy to sneer at this whole international ordeal and America’s place within it. We could criticize the Rio Games as the jingoistic, inflated media-orgasm that they are, all while trying not to crumble under the weight of the world judging our political idiocy and fashion faux pas, with those Ralph Lauren outfits exalting America’s obsessive consumerism.
In short, American morale seemed low in Rio de Janeiro and at home.
Yet Team USA—both our athletes competing in Rio and our constituents watching from within these 50 states—can’t settle for apathy. Rather, we must present a singular front at home and abroad, even in the midst of this internal social and political turmoil.
The whole point of the Olympic games is to inspire both national pride and friendly competition among nations. In fact, one of the mission statements provided by the International Olympic Committee emphasizes “the endeavor to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.” Like music and movies and books and the other creative pursuits we cover here at Paste, sports are yet another activity that can connect even the most disparate groups in the most dire of circumstances (see also the brilliant Nike ad featuring Chance the Rapper riffing on “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a prime example). So in the face of violence and vitriol on the ground at home, Americans must challenge the listlessness and resignation toward the games in order to reverse our rapidly crumbling cultural unity.
Luckily many of Team USA’s athletes have already fought this notion, with sabers and tumbles, on the hardwood and the field. Tomorrow morning at 8 a.m., black Muslim fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who competes while wearing hijab, takes the floor in the quarterfinals of team sabre. The 30-year New Jersey-native made history in these games simply by being the first American to compete wearing her religious head cover. In the games, Muhammad has also reached the round of 16 in individual sabre, but she’s also stood her ground by speaking out against Donald Trump and fielding racist digital attacks.
Then there’s the #squadgoals of the Women’s Gymnastics Team, comprised of athletes who are Latina, African-American, Jewish, and white. These five young women—Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and Madison Kocian—beat their competition so defiantly in the team qualifiers that the second-place China trailed by nearly 10 points. The women went on to win the gold easily during the finals on Tuesday and individual events takes place in the coming days.
And finally, there’s the record number of openly LGBTQ+ athletes competing this year. Granted, the eight openly gay women (zero men have openly discussed any sexuality veering away from heteronormality), represent a minute percentage of the entire American Olympic squad. Yet, they—especially lead by legendary basketball center Brittney Griner—prove that sexuality has nothing to do with athletic prowess. Team USA basketball is still in the prelims, but has a history of dynasties, so expectations are high through the rest of the games.
These Olympians, just a few powerful examples among the 555 Americans competing, represent the United States in our most powerful light. They show the world who we claim to be when we say we’re from the land of the free. They destroy the false notions currently poisoning this country that claim some of us are not created equal. Instead, they raise a torch of truth and inspiration that America is where blacks and Jews and gays and immigrants and Muslims can not only co-exist, but also succeed together.
But this force can’t stop when the medal board stops counting on August 21. Team USA’s success will only truly matter if we can take this energy and unity back home with us. And so for now, our fans, our citizens, and our athletes must present some semblance of national unity during the rest of the games. It’s imperative for the United States’ success in Rio and national morale at home.