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Olympian Insecurity

No past generation of Americans suffered such a pathological need to dominate.


All very sensible, I thought. The guy on the stationary bike apparently agreed. He just nodded and kept peddling.

Anyway, I had moved on to the far end of the circuit before the lady on the cross-trainer could deal thoroughly with Alan Greenspan and the jobless recovery, but the first bit of her economic analysis made equally good sense.

But all this good sense made me wonder about something. When I first overheard her, she'd been discussing the Tour de France. Apparently, Lance Armstrong had done something to humble the French, and the lady on the cross-trainer seemed delighted about this. Apparently, she is not overly fond of our French friends — she used an amphibian epithet — for she went on at some length about their national shortcomings.

As an admirer of things French — the cuisine, the wines, Sophie Marceau — my first impression was that the lady on the cross-trainer was talking through her hat. It was only her dissection of the mess in Iraq that convinced me that she wasn't just another brainless hyper-patriot.

Anyway, before I left the workout room, I heard a young fellow exulting to his young buddy in a similar, anti-Gallic vein. I began to detect a pattern.

And right away, I couldn't help thinking how disagreeable things are going to get when the Olympics begin later this month.

I consider myself as patriotic as the next guy, but I confess to great puzzlement at my fellow citizens' obsession with American athletes winning every event, every time. Network coverage of the Olympics is probably the most egregious example. As the promotional spots are already making clear, the only athletes to be featured are those from the United States. Throughout the event, our announcers will cast aside any pretense of impartiality, presenting the Games as a contest pitting the United States against the world — with our athletes wearing the white hats.

Never mind that the whole intent of the Olympic Games is to bring the world together for a few peaceful weeks to celebrate youth, talent and dedication. Never mind that the kids representing the other 97 percent of the planet's population are, for the most part, just as worthy of admiration and emulation as our own. In this country, the Games have become a celebration of how we, the world's superpower — blessed with a large population, limitless wealth and amazing technological advantages — dominate the world.

And that strikes me as sad.

Because you'd think that we, as the world's only superpower — even, as some Europeans put it, the world's first hyperpower — would be less insecure. We enjoy a wonderful system of constitutional government, a remarkable degree of individual freedom, and great material wealth. Every year, millions of people try to get into the United States — and rather few decide to emigrate.

Yet with all that, we still seem to need to prove our greatness over and over again — in sports, in a bullying style of diplomacy, and even by waging the occasional lopsided war against some feeble opponent.

At the same time, we have become notorious for rejecting international cooperation when it isn't to our advantage. Not for us the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto Treaty. Not for us the United Nations charter's limitations on launching pre-emptive wars.

And certainly not for us to celebrate a brilliant athletic performance by some kid who happens to hail from another country — especially if that country is one of which we disapprove.

America's hubris — oddly mixed up with a kind of persistent national inferiority complex — seems to mystify the world. It certainly mystifies me. No past generation of Americans suffered such a pathological need to dominate. The doughboys who fought at Belleau Wood and the GIs who stormed Omaha Beach represented a confident, generous-hearted people who were unafraid to be the world's best friend.

Sometime since we landed on the Moon — and lost in Vietnam — we Americans have lost that confidence and generosity of spirit. The results are easy to see — and hear — but more difficult to solve.

Certainly, I have no ready solution. But during the three weeks of the Olympics, I think I'll keep my headphones on during my workouts at the Y.S

Frederick T. (Rick) Gray Jr. is a native of Chesterfield County. A teacher, actor and political activist, he served as Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1978-1981.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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