It was July 23, 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia. The US Women’s gymnastics team was within striking distance of their first ever gold medal in the team competition. The Russians were leading in points, but if the Americans could stick their final vaults, they could overtake the Russians and win the gold. Their best performer, Dominique Moceanu, fell on both of her attempts, so, it was up to 4-foot 8-inch, Kerri Strug to save the day. On her first attempt, Kerri landed awkwardly, tearing two ligaments in her left ankle. She crouched on the mat in pain, tears in her eyes. It looked like it was over. The Russians win again.
She limped to the bench where the team trainer heavily wrapped her ankle. “Do we need this?” She asked her coach Bella Karolyi. His answer was ‘yes’. The gold medal came down to one last vault. Minutes later, Kerri Strug stood at the end of the runway, on one leg, staring at the vault, 82 feet away. She took a deep breath, and sprinted down the runway, pain shooting through her ankle with each stride. She hit the vault, flipped and spun in the air, and stuck her landing on one leg. And then she crumpled to the mat writhing in pain, victorious.
In light of Simone Biles recently opting out of her Olympic competition for fear that her psychological issues could endanger her health, many are rethinking Kerri Strug’s decision to attempt that last vault? Should she have risked her health for a medal? The arguments range from; that’s part of being an elite athlete, to she owed it to her team, to she should take care of herself first. No one would have blamed her if she shut it down. There was no guarantee of a gold medal simply by deciding to attempt that final vault. Right or wrong, Kerri Strug put her body on the line not for herself, but for something beyond herself, beyond her team and teammates, for her country, for her fellow Americans.
After withdrawing from the competition, Simone Biles shed light on the changing mindset of athletes when she explained, "We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we're human, too. We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do." She was primarily focused on herself. She cited pressure as one of the reason she opted out. She tweeted that she felt "like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times."
When you compete for something greater than the self, the pressure does not weigh as heavily on you. The results of your efforts are not determinative of your value as a person. But when the competition is turned inward, the pressure can become suffocating. Biles viewed herself not solely as one of the 613 athletes representing the United States of America; she referred to herself as the “head star of the Olympics”, failing to acknowledge the many great American athletes competing alongside her whose efforts and performances could have alleviated the pressure she felt. When you sublimate yourself for a greater cause, you’re able to focus on the process, and not on the results which creates the pressure. But when you view yourself as the greater cause, your self-worth gets tied up in the end result, and how you perform becomes almost monumental to you.
One of the most iconic photos in the history of American sports is of United States Olympic hockey goalie, Jim Craig, exhausted, skating up the ice with the American flag wrapped around him, after defeating the Gold medal favorites, the Russians. You can see in that moment, Craig was not just playing for himself, or his family, or his teammates, he was playing for his country. That was just not another hockey game to him. It represented a whole lot more; the battle between two world views, capitalism vs communism, freedom vs oppression. That American flag wrapped around him, represented all what our country aspires to be; the ideals and principles written in our founding documents; life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. And when any American goes onto a field of battle, or into an Olympic arena, wearing the flag, they are not solely competing for themself, they are representing all that the flag stands for.
To many of the athletes competing in Tokyo these past two weeks, the Olympics were not about representing their country, but promoting themselves. There has been a noticeable lack of patriotism compared to previous Olympics. The spectator can barely discern which country each athlete represents. It appears that these competitions are simply vehicles for individual achievement. It is not about representing their home country or even the team. It is about the self. To many of these athletes, the United States is merely a sponsor, no different than Coca-Cola or Under Amour or FedEx. The sponsor pays the bills so the athletes must wear their logo.
In the past, athletes took great pride in representing their country. It was an honor to compete under the colors of their nation, and win a medal so they can proudly watch their country’s flag raised above the others as their National Anthem played. These days, United States athletes use their Olympic platform to make political, anti-American statements, virtue-signaling for their own self-aggrandizement.
United States shot putter, Raven Saunders, used her gold medal podium to protest America and the American flag. Hammer thrower Gwen Berry protested the American flag during the Olympic trials, and promised to use her medal ceremony to do the same if she won in Tokyo, before failing to medal. None of these demonstration do anything to improve the issue they claim they are demonstrating for. They only create division within the country, while bringing attention to the athlete. Both Saunders and Berry’s social media presence have grown exponentially since they protested the American flag. The US Women’s Soccer team also decided to disrespect the America flag during the playing of our National Anthem prior to their games.
These are women and minorities who are protesting the “injustice and oppression” in America against women and minorities at the Olympic venue where they have risen to the heights of their chosen profession from and supported by the very country that they were protesting because they claim to be oppressed. When high profile Americans publicly disrespect our flag, our anthem, our country, these symbols are no longer means of unity, but emblems of division. And this is where we are as a country, divided and fractured. Our national motto is no longer “e pluribus unum”, out of many, one; but, e unum pluribus, out of one, many.
After continually protesting our flag, the heavily favored US Women’s soccer team fell in the semi-finals to Canada, 1-0, and finished the Olympics with a record of 2-2-1. The game losing goal against Canada was on a penalty kick caused by a lackadaisical play. During the Olympics, the US team had 9 goals called back due to offsides penalties which is a sign of lack of focus and discipline. They did not play as if they were representing something greater than the self, like for their country or their fellow Americans, they were all about themselves.
After being eliminated from Gold Medal contention, forward Megan Rapinoe took a shot at the eventual Gold Medal winners, Canada by saying, "Obviously we never want to lose to Canada. ... It sucks.” Ironically, the Canadian woman who scored the game winning goal against the USA played her college soccer at UCLA in America, underscoring how fortunate the women on the US team are to grow up in America where star players from other countries come to fine tune their skills.
The US Women’s soccer team played uninspired which is often the case when you play for yourself. Transcendent performances usually result when people play for someone or something beyond themselves. Think of Brett Favre’s 5 TD performance the day after his father passed away. Or South African swimmer, Tatjana Schoenmaker with “Soli Deo Gloria” meaning ‘Glory To God Alone’ on her swim cap, winning the gold medal in the 200 meter breast stroke, and breaking the world record at these Olympics. When you place the purpose of your competing on something outside yourself, you stop feeling the “weight of the world on your shoulders.”
Only people who have lived in a country like America where rights, freedom and opportunities are so plentiful that they are taken for granted to such an extent that they not only deny their existence, they protest against the country. Did any of these women stop to think that maybe the reason why they have been so successful is precisely because they were fortunate to be born in the United States where opportunities for young girls to participate in sports, to develop their skills, advance their careers, win athletic scholarships, get paid to play, is greater than in any other country in the world, and has been that way for the last 40 years?
Consider, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya forced to defect from her home country during the Olympics because she had been ordered home in the middle of her competition to be punished by the Belarusian government for an Instagram message she posted that government officials there did not approve of.
It is usually people who are new to America who can see the greatness of America. US Female wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock who is the daughter of an immigrant, and also lost her father in a car accident at age 15, expressed her love for our country after winning America’s first gold medal in the 68-kilogram freestyle wrestling on Tuesday. With the American flag draped around her shoulders, she was asked how it feels to represent the U.S.A. at the Olympics. She replied, “It feels amazing. I love representing the U.S. I freaking love living there, I love it, and I’m so happy I get to represent U-S-A.” Compare her to the kneelers and the protestors. She later put the Olympics and life into the proper perspective when she said, “It’s by the grace of God that I’m able to even move my feet. I just leave it in his [God’s] hands.” When you view the world from a perspective beyond the self, you will be able reach your highest heights, and also appreciate everything you do have.
So, instead of disrespecting our flag, the US athletes should thank God they were born under that flag in a country that aspires to achieve all what that flag represents. Maybe if everyone who is fortunate to live in America displayed the respect and gratitude for America that it deserves, the ideals and principles that make America so special would spread worldwide, so 8-year-old girls waking up in China today would be putting on soccer cleats to go to play a game, instead of putting on work shoes to go to a sweatshop to stitch together the soccer cleats that American 8-year-old girls will wear one day.
Judd Garrett is a graduate from Princeton University, and a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He has been a contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.