Friday

July 1st, 2022

Insight

The wrestler who loved her country

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published August 10, 2021

NBC paid more than $1 billion to broadcast this year's Tokyo Olympics, but right from the start its ratings were abysmal.

The opening ceremony drew just 16.7 million viewers, the smallest US television audience for an Olympic opener in at least 33 years. That turned out to be no anomaly. The number of Americans tuning in to the games this year was down by a stunning 45 percent compared to the Rio games in 2016. Viewership during prime-time was even worse, down more than 52 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times.

No doubt there are multiple reasons that explain Americans' dramatically reduced interest in watching the Olympics this year. Perhaps, as some suggest, it had to do with the 13-hour time difference between Tokyo and the East Coast of the United States, which resulted in many competitions occurring while many Americans were asleep. Perhaps the explanation lay in the increased number of people streaming the games on digital platforms. Perhaps 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic simply sapped Americans' enthusiasm for the event.

But might it also be that fewer Americans were interested in watching an Olympics that at times seemed to be as much about protests as about athletics?

"The Olympic flame hadn't been lit here before athletes took a knee to protest social injustice," reported USA Today on July 22. "With women's soccer competition beginning before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games on Friday, five teams – including the Americans – knelt on the field before the start of their games."

The sourness of protests was in the air even before the Tokyo games got underway. US hammer thrower Gwen Berry ostentatiously turned away from the US flag during the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" as she stood on the podium at the Olympic track and field trials in June, where she placed third and qualified for the Tokyo Games.

"I feel like it was a set-up and they did it on purpose," she complained. "I was pissed, to be honest." She showed her contempt by holding an activist shirt over her head. "I don't really want to talk about the anthem because that's not important," she told reporters. "The anthem doesn't speak for me ." Almost completely overshadowed by Berry's hostility were the 1st- and 2nd-place finishers, DeAnna Price and Brooke Andersen, who stood on the podium with their hands on their hearts and their eyes fixed on the American flag as the national anthem played.

A number of American athletes headed to Tokyo at least as intent on staging protests as on winning competitions. "US Athletes Have Been Planning Podium Protests for Weeks," a New York Times story was headlined:

Raven Saunders, the American shot-putter who delivered the first political demonstration on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics when she raised her arms and crossed them in the shape of an X shortly after receiving her silver medal, said Monday that American athletes have been planning their protest in defiance of International Olympic Committee regulations for several weeks.

In an interview Monday night, Saunders said the planning took place over a group text message with athletes in multiple sports. The group decided that the X would be their symbol and that it represents unity with oppressed people. . . .

As Saunders left, she told reporters that her act was "for oppressed people."

She also claimed that she had been "respectful of the national anthem being played." If that wasn't sarcasm, it was cluelessness: Respect for a national anthem and for fellow athletes isn't demonstrated by ostentatiously striking a political pose during the medal ceremony.

Other protesting American athletes included foil fencer Race Imboden, who posted a picture of himself posing with the bronze medal his team won in the men's foil while sporting an X drawn on his hand, as well as most of the US fencing team, who donned pink masks to signal their ostracism of a teammate accused of sexual assault.

It wasn't only athletes.

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ESPN scribe William Rhoden went on TV to express his distaste at the sight of the American flag during the opening ceremonies and to decry "the rise of white nationalism" represented by the red, white and blue.

"You know, man, particularly after these last four years, I had it wrong," he said. "Nationalism is not good. We've seen the rise of white nationalism. . . . I keep thinking back on the Capitol riots, and I saw a lot of, you know, US flags. So now when I see the flag and the flag raised, what — what America am I living in?

To be sure, the protesting athletes (and TV talking heads) amounted to only a small fraction of the US squad. But they attracted an inordinate amount of media attention, which imparted an acrid political odor to the Olympics that many viewers found off-putting. A new Monmouth University poll confirmed that "backlash against athletes who make political statements" was one of "the leading reasons for declining interest" in the games:

One-third (36%) of Americans expressly say they have less interest in this year's Olympics compared with past Games. When asked the reason why, nearly a third (30%) of this group specifically mention something to do with the pandemic and another third (34%) point to politics.

Thank goodness, then, for one US Olympian who won countless hearts when she spontaneously demonstrated that athletic excellence can still go hand-in-hand with joyful, grateful patriotism.

Tamyra Mensah-Stock, an American wrestler, won a gold medal in the 68-kilogram freestyle finale last week, beating Nigeria's Blessing Oborududu to become only the second woman to win gold in USA Wrestling history. She was interviewed on NBC right after her win , a US flag draped around her shoulders, unable to hold back tears of joy as she reflected on her achievement, thanked G od for her success, and speculated on the pride with which her father, an immigrant from Ghana who died in a car crash when Tamyra was in high school, would have reacted to her victory.

But it was Mensah-Stock's exultant answer to the interviewer's final question that instantly went viral in the best possible way.

"The American flag around your shoulders looks pretty good. How does that feel — to represent your country like that?" she was asked.

"It feels amazing!" she replied, making the "heart" sign with her hands. "I love representing the US! I freaking love living there. I'm so happy I get to represent U-S-A! Love it!"

What a contrast with Berry, who felt so "pissed" at having to endure her country's national anthem.

"The two Olympians . . . have completely different worldviews," observed Tristan Justice at The Federalist.

One that's bought into the left-wing lie of irredeemable oppression oblivious to their personal circumstances and another that recognizes the United States as a land of opportunity.

Unlike Berry, Mensah-Stock is a champion. Not just because the wrestler won the gold while Berry failed to place, but because Mensah-Stock has rejected the leftist myth that America is an irredeemable empire stoked in the kind of racism that would bar the two from even competing in the first place. Berry, on the other hand, attended the games more interested in demonizing the nation she had the privilege to represent.

Mensah-Stock's unabashed patriotism may be sneered at by some who think of themselves as "woke" and progressive, but I have a hunch there are a lot more of us who see in her an ideal American Olympian. Who knows? Had NBC Sports spent more time celebrating the national pride of athletes like Mensah-Stock and less on the alienating negativity of athletes who used their Olympic moment for social protests, perhaps those television ratings would have been considerably more robust.

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