Ugly Americans

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I haven’t watched much of the Olympics, because I think it’s gotten over the top and I can’t believe that a poor country like Brazil is spending its hard earned money building stadia and athletes villages rather than trying to do something for its desperately impoverished people.  I did, however, hear about the purported robbery of Ryan Lochte and other U.S. swimmers.  It was an odd story that didn’t really make a lot of sense, but it fit with the narrative of Brazil being a dangerous place.

Now the Lochte story seems to be falling apart and exposed as a complete fabrication.  Brazilian authorities — who have reviewed video footage — say what actually happened wasn’t a robbery at all.  Instead, they say that the incident was a dispute between the Americans, who were returning early in the morning after being out partying, and employees at a Shell gas station about damage done to a restroom.  Authorities have now prevented some of the swimmers from leaving the country until they can get to the bottom of things.

The Brazilians are angry because they feel like the honor of their country has been besmirched.  I don’t blame them for that reaction.  Americans acting like jerks, and then failing to own up to their misconduct and instead trying to blame everyone else, is a classic example of ugly Americanism.  I don’t understand why Brazil — or for that matter, anyone — would want to host an Olympics, but the Brazilians obviously are proud of their host country status, and probably disappointed whenever there is some less than glowing publicity about their country and the games.  To have a fake story about a robbery get worldwide press attention must be intolerable.

Unfortunately, we’re long past the point where social mores would force a wrongdoer to do the decent, honorable thing, and apologize.  Already there are people who are excusing the Americans or downplaying what they did.  I wish people wouldn’t do that.  We’d all be better served if people started ‘fessing up, rather than shirking responsibility.  I hope that Lochte and his fellow parties do the right thing, admit to the truth, and say they’re sorry.  That would go a long way toward helping the citizens of the U.S. of A. avoid that “ugly American” label.

Blame It On Rio

Brazil is really struggling.  The country is in the midst of a severe recession, with the economy shrinking, unemployment rising, and annual inflation above 10 percent.  Crushing poverty is found among large parts of the population.  The country’s President has been suspended from office and faces impeachment, and recent investigations have exposed a web of governmental corruption fueled by the state-controlled oil company.  Crime is an ongoing problem, as are drug gangs, and the hundreds of reported cases of the Zika virus have increased health concerns.

Oh, yeah — and then there’s the fact that the summer Olympics start in Rio de Janeiro on August 5.

5ygfvaBrazil’s Rio state, which is expected to pick up part of the hefty tab for the Olympics, is a financial basket case.  The acting governor recently declared “a state of financial disaster” in Rio.  The statement said “The financial crisis has brought several difficulties in essential public services and it could cause the total collapse of public security, health care, education, urban mobility and environmental management.”

A “total collapse” of public security and health care in a country that has long had a serious problem with violent street crime, disease, and appalling poverty?  Makes you want to get your tickets to those track and field events, doesn’t it?

The idea is that the “state of financial disaster” will help the Rio state government to “honor[] its commitment to the organization of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”  The declaration will allow the Rio state government to seek millions of dollars in emergency funds from the national government to allow it to try to provide the security, transportation, and other services surrounding the games.

Brazil is the latest example of just how stupid the Olympics have become.  Countries celebrate when they are selected to host, but then they start to think about how they are going to pay for all of the fancy venues and stadia and Olympic villages for the athletes.  It’s a prime opportunity for more corruption, but it’s mainly misguided priorities.  Brazil’s Rio state can’t even adequately fund its hospitals and police stations, or make timely payments to public workers and retirees, and it’s going to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to “honor its commitment” to the Olympics?  How do you think the poor people of Rio, the pensioners who aren’t getting paid, and the people who can’t get decent health care feel about that?

You can argue about whether the International Olympic Committee should have picked Rio de Janeiro in the first place.  Brazil has lots of problems, and it always seems to swing between claimed economic miracle and total financial collapse.  You can’t argue, however, against the fact that the Olympics are proving to be an ugly, and entirely unnecessary, burden for a country that is facing economic and social calamity.  Even if the Olympics go off without a hitch — and don’t hold your breath on that score — when the weeks of glitzy athletic glamour end, Brazil will be left holding the tab, and the grinding poverty and raging crime and rampant corruption will remain.

I hope no American city ever seeks to host an Olympics again.  It’s just not worth it.

Those Burly, Cheating Russians

In an ever-changing world, it’s nice to know that some things never change — like the Russians cheating at sports events.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has released a scathing, 323-page report that concludes that, in Russia, “acceptance of cheating at all levels is widespread.”  The report cites incidents in which a testing lab director ordered more than 1,000 samples destroyed in order to thwart the investigation and evidence that the Russian Federal Security Service interfered with testing, intimidated lab workers and even posed as lab engineers during the Sochi Olympics, which Russia hosted, to infiltrate and impede testing efforts.  The upshot is that Russia’s efforts allowed athletes who were suspected of cheating to continue to compete in international contests, including the Olympics.  The chair of the body that issued the report said:  “It’s worse than we thought.”

The chair also said that Russia’s state-sponsored cheating “may be the residue of the old Soviet Union system.”  If so, that’s some pretty long-lasting residue!  The Soviet Union ended more than 20 years ago.

Still, the reference to the Soviet Union brought back fond memories of the Olympics of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, when it was the United States versus the Soviet bloc and Russian and East German athletes were widely suspected to be doping.  The East German women, in particular, were famous for their burly, broad-shouldered, extraordinarily mannish physiques.  Everybody figured they were cheating, but they never seemed to get caught, and the extent of the doping wasn’t exposed until later.

Now the Russians have been exposed as cheaters, and international sports entities are saying that Russian athletes may be banned from the Olympics unless there is reform, immediately.  The Russians respond that this is all a politically motivated witch hunt linked to Russia’s incursions into Ukraine.  (Seriously!)  It’s the classic Russian blame somebody else response.

This is all just sports, of course, but it does make you think:  how can we ever trust these guys?  If the Russians are flagrantly and systematically cheating at sports events, and Russian agents are interfering with testing to allow the cheating to continue, how can we ever credit their agreement to any kind of treaty or peace accord?

 

Should The Olympics End?

People are starting to talk openly about whether the Olympics — the celebrated get-together, every four years, of athletes from countries around the world, to participate in summer and winter sports — should just end.

Some of the stated reasons for looking to end the entire Olympics experiment are listed in this piece by Charles Lane of the Washington Post. The Olympics often are hosted by countries that are not exactly paragons of freedom and tolerance — like Russia, which will host the Winter Olympics in a few weeks. The Olympics are corrupt; some athletes cheat by taking banned substances, and the members of Olympic committees allegedly are influenced by bribes or lavish treatment. The Olympics exacerbate mindless nationalism. The Olympics are an inviting target for terrorism.

I know that many athletes, particularly in sports that don’t attract much public attention, view the Olympics as providing their one chance at glory. Americans who win a gold medal, even if it is in some obscure sport like curling, can always say that, at that moment in time, they were the best in the world. And there is no doubt that athletic competition can bring people together.

But the ideal has, I think, largely been lost. The Olympics are so soaked in money that they can’t really claim to present the pure athletic competition that was the original Olympic dream. And it’s not just TV revenue and endorsements, either. Host countries go bankrupt trying to provide the facilities needed to provide venues for the dozens and dozens of sports in which competition occurs and trying to one-up the last host country for the events. If you lived in a city vying for the Olympic Games, what would you rather spend your money on — roads, bridges, and schools, or high-ended, limited utility sports venues that go unused when your three weeks in the spotlight ends?

The Olympics seems like a silly, wasteful luxury to me. I’d be perfectly content if the United States never hosted the Olympics again.

Simmering Just Below The Surface

For years we’ve been reading about Brazil as a budding economic powerhouse, an emerging alternative voice on the world stage, and a future force in global politics.  When Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, those events seemed like an opportunity to cement Brazil’s new, prominent role.

Brazil’s good press, however, always seemed at odds with the country’s great disparities in income and its grinding poverty.  Recently some of our friends visited Brazil and were shaken by the terrible living conditions of the poor, the aggressive begging, and an outright street theft in which a necklace was snatched from a neck by urchins who sprinted away and were quickly lost in the ever-present crowds.  It’s safe to say that they aren’t recommending it as a tourist destination.

Now some of those economic and class tensions have bubbled to the surface and are shaking Brazil’s political leadership to the core.  Brazil has been rocked by huge demonstrations that show no signs of ending.  They started as a protest about bus fare increases in Sao Paolo but quickly expanded to become a nationwide movement that is protesting political corruption, poor health care and education, and the money being poured into venues for soccer matches and the Olympics rather than being used to help the poor, among other topics of concern.

Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, has held emergency meetings with her Cabinet to address the issues raised by the protests.  She promises to develop a new plan for public transportation, to earmark oil revenues for education, and to hire thousands of doctors from overseas to improve Brazil’s health system.  The protesters no doubt are wondering why it took huge public protests to get the government to focus on these issues — and whether they can trust the government to follow through on its promises if the protests end.

About Those Olympic Uniforms . . . .

Should we care, deeply and passionately, that the uniforms worn by athletes of the U.S. Olympic team were made in China?  Should we, following the angry suggestion of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — who has shown more vigor about this issue than issues of lesser importance like, say, the budget deficit — take all of the U.S. team uniforms, put them in a pile, and burn them?

I’m surprised that the U.S. Olympic Committee didn’t anticipate this kind of over-the-top political reaction and make sure to use a U.S. manufacturer for the uniforms, no matter how much it cost.  My guess, however, is that the person in charge of the uniforms decided to get what they could at the lowest cost, to make the budget stretch a little farther.  That meant looking to China.  There’s nothing unusual about that, of course.  My guess is that, on a daily basis, most Americans wear clothing that for the most part was manufactured, sewn, or assembled in China, because Chinese garment makers tend to provide good quality at a much lower price than their American competitors.  Capitalism gives us the right to make these sorts of decisions in our personal lives, and many of us do — whether it’s Chinese clothing, Korean cars, or French wine.  Protectionist political impulses aside, why should the U.S. Olympic Committee be treated differently?

The real issue with the uniforms, instead, should be with their appearance.  What, is every one of our athletes participating in a yachting competition?  These guys look like they should be holding a cold Vodka Collins rather than an American flag and should speak with the same affected, upper-crust accent that we heard from Thurston Howell III and “Lovey.” Do you think those sparkling white shoes have little gold buckles on them?  And what’s with the hat, by the way?  Is it supposed to be a beret, or an extra-large skullcap, or something that also could serve to cover an oozing head wound in a pinch?

The Steady Retreat From Fandom

The other day I realized, with a start, that baseball season is underway.  I haven’t been paying attention, candidly.  The fact that the Tribe is expected to be lousy again this year is probably part of the reason; the fact that the Indians’ roster is largely peopled by players I’ve never heard of also is a contributing factor.  (Seriously, who are these guys?  The Tribe has players named Lou Marson, Vinnie Pestano, and Jack Hannahan, among others.)

The reality, however, is that I’ve been steadily losing interest in sports for a few decades now.  I haven’t watched a boxing match since the 1970s and the heyday of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.  I don’t follow the Summer or Winter Olympics and don’t really care if the U.S. wins the most medals.  I stopped paying attention to the NBA in the early 1990s, and you really couldn’t pay me to watch an NBA game these days.  In golf, I’m down to maybe checking out parts of the four major tournaments.  I also feel my interest in the NFL and major league baseball ebbing away, to the point where I have only a vague understanding of which teams are doing well and which aren’t.  I still care passionately about college football and college basketball, but that’s about it.

Why is this so?  Part of it has to do with the fact that the Cleveland baseball and football teams that I follow have been putrid lately.  It’s hard to maintain interest when your team is out of the running before the season is even half over.  But the broader issue is that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that being a sports fan — other than with respect to OSU football and basketball, of course — is kind of a waste of time and energy.  I’d rather play golf than watch it.  Taking a walk or reading a book or catching up on the news is preferable to spending hours in front of a TV watching a game.  And sports talk radio is too insipid for my tastes.

For some reason, this trend bothers me.  I actually feel kind of guilty about it.

Torched

The International Olympic Committee has selected Rio de Janiero as the site of the 2016 Summer Games.  I feel sorry for the people in Chicago, which was knocked out in the first round of the selection process, and I don’t understand or share the reaction of some Americans who celebrated the decision as a kind of comeuppance for President Obama.

Still, I think the President’s decision to jet over to Europe to make a pitch for the Games was an ill-advised decision on many levels.  How can the President justify taking time away from a full plate of foreign and domestic problems to make a bid for what is, at bottom, a sporting event?  Comparisons of the amount of time he has spent with his commanding general in Afghanistan and the amount of time he spent flying over to selection committee meeting are cheap and easy, but have real resonance with Americans who are still trying to figure out what President Obama is like as a person and as a leader.  What do such comparisons say about his priorities?  Moreover, I object to the majesty of the American presidency being engaged in hucksterism, where the President is brought in at the last minute to try to “close the deal” on things like the  Olympics or large corporate contracts.  Finally, as a political matter, the President’s decision to become personally involved seems foolish.  He gives his domestic political opponents ammunition, reduces himself by going over to Europe to plead with a bunch of low-level functionaries in a corrupt international sports bureaucracy, and then gets humiliated when, despite his impassioned plea and celebrityhood, the functionaries boot Chicago out in the first round.

I hope President Obama has learned a valuable lesson.  The weight of the office of the American President should not be dissipated on trivialities.  Our President’s decision to become involved in a particular matter should have impact, in part, because it is rare and reserved for very special occasions.  If the President is seen on late-night TV regularly, or is happy to fly to some faraway destination to shill for a city hoping to land the Olympics, what kind of impact will it have if the President tries to mediate some domestic political dispute or foreign policy crisis?