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Are You a Grand Old Flag?

The second day of the 2002 Winter Olympics dawns as a glorious morning at Utah Olympic Park site of the 90-meter ski jump qualifying round and finals. We awoke at five in the morning, walked to a transit station, rode a shuttle bus, hiked a mile, and stood in line for metal detectors and bag checks to arrive here just in time to see the sun peek up over the mountains. Most of the athletes in this weaker, early section of the competition have been landing at roughly the same distance. And then U.S. athlete Brendan Doran appears on the video screen. The crowd, as they say, goes crazy. Doran launches himself down the ramp, and the energy builds; American flags wave everywhere in a rising tide of patriotic fervor. It’s contagious. I hear my voice join the chorus as the athlete flies into the sky.

At the last Olympics I attended, the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, I was a devout member of the church of patriotism. Over the years, I came to reject and even oppose that absolute notion of national piety. But I still love the Olympics. And whether owing to the influence of television coverage or to a deep-rooted sense of tradition, I usually want the Americans to win. Given my unease with the flag-waving that has seized the nation in recent months, I came to see these Salt Lake City Olympics wondering how I would react to what would surely be a suffocating display of in-you-face patriotism. Would I recoil from the scores of people who paint their faces red, white, and blue? Or would I put my cynicism on hold for a few weeks and join with my fellow citizens in cheering on the United States, as I do every two years, glued helplessly to my TV?

To me, patriotism, in its most basic form, is an intangible sense of belonging to one country. But too often patriotism can become, at the very least, a knee-jerk bragging of American superiority. And at the very worst an excuse for some of the ugliest tendencies in American society: discrimination, isolation, hate. In the wake of September 11, patriotism has become the national pastime, even a civic requirement. Those of us with dissenting views of Bush and the war are frequently cast as un-American turncoats. And now the sight of the American flag, so ubiquitous on television and the streets of New York, makes me feel conflicted rather than proud.

Things were so much more clear-cut back in the cold war. USSR bad! USA good! In the moderately conservative, upper-class suburb of Los Angeles where I grew up, being patriotic was as instinctive as breathing. My parents, who immigrated here from Peru in the 1960s, bought Fords; we flew the American flag on national holidays. Like just about everyone else I knew—much as the thought disturbs me now—I saw Ronald Reagan as a kindly father figure who would keep taxes low and protect us from the big, bad communists.

When the Olympics came to town, I was ready for them. I owned not one, but two hooded Olympic shirts. I collected and traded pins. I stood along the torch route, cheering and waving my little American flag and got to attend two events, track-and-field and volleyball. I loved everything about those games, and was only somewhat disappointed that the Soviet-led boycott meant the U.S.’s extravagant medal count would be written into history with an asterisk attached.

It’s hard to reconcile myself with that sheltered 13-year-old, ignorant of politics, international affairs, or anything happening outside her own backyard, who believed unhesitatingly that America was better than any other country in the world. I sometimes feel as though my conservative past is a dirty secret I have to hide, like a drinking problem or a fondness for toy poodles. But I was hardly unique. And the patriotism I espoused was, then as now, the same sentiment embraced by millions of Americans. What could be wrong, after all, with having pride in your country?

It’s a fair question, but I don’t think it’s always that simple. Just as it is a short step from confidence to egotism, so it is from pride to bombast, from patriotism to jingoism. Ambrose Bierce once satirically described a patriot as “one to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.” Sarcasm aside, when taken to its extremes, a zealous defense of the American way of life can lead to intolerance and to a willful blindness about our place in the larger world. Bierce might have had something to say about President George W. Bush’s myopic refusal to sign international treaties, claiming that they aren’t the America’s best interests. What seems an arrogant and inherently dangerous practice may be the president’s idea of patriotism, but it isn’t mine.
In Salt Lake City, I expect to encounter patriotism run amok, and I worry somewhat that jingoism at the expense of other counties will mar my experience. But as the games go on, my fears prove largely unfounded. As expected, of course, spectators cheer loudest for the Americans; I see every manner of flag-related clothing one could imagine; the constant, deafening chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” grow wearisome; and at a curling event—curling!—some jerk in the stands above us persisted in heckling the Norwegian team. For the most part, however, a genuine appreciation for talent and effort, regardless of the athlete’s country, runs through these games. It helps enormously that we’re unencumbered by the heavily packaged televised broadcasts we’d be watching at home. Here, blissfully free of Bob Costas’s insipid commentary, we don’t know who grew up an orphan or who was once nearly paralyzed in a freak riding accident. Instead, we judged each athlete on the triumphs and failures that take place in front of us.

At the freestyle moguls competition (otherwise known as the Jonny Moseley Show, given the American athlete’s rock-star status and sizable cheering section), a Japanese skier falls, spectacularly and hard, on the first jump. The crowd, sensing his discouragement, claps and shouts its support, willing the athlete to get up. He struggles to his feet and gets back on the course, and we continue to cheer him on; but further down the run, he falls again. By the time he finally crosses the finish line, the noise level has grown thunderous.

At the snowboard half pipe final, spectators are bowled over by Japanese athlete Takaharu Nakai’s creatively acrobatic maneuvers (or in snowboarding parlance, his “sick” moves). Including, as Jennifer Sherowski later writes for Transworld Snowboarding, “a huge McTwist-to-Crippler combo.” An awestruck fan behind us murmurs, “I don’t even know what that was.” For some reason that none of us can fathom, the judges award Nakai a less-than-stellar score, landing him in fourth place and throwing him out of medal contention. And even though a higher score for the Japanese athlete would have cost the U.S. a medal—with Americans currently in first, second, and third place—the crowd boos its displeasure.

Healthy support for other countries’ athletes is present in varying degrees at nearly every event I attend. But for all my claims of global inclusiveness, often I find myself joining my compatriots in cheering loudest and longest for the American athletes. At times I feel guilty about it, as though I’m falling prey to mob mentality. Yet while I diplomatically spread my enthusiasm around, my wild euphoria when U.S. skier Bode Miller tears it up on his second slalom run, vaulting from fifth place to win silver in the combined downhill, is spontaneous and real. When Apolo Ohno overtakes the field in the short track speed skating 1,000-meter finals, I am on my feet with the rest of the crowd, screaming at the top of my lungs and gasping as he falls.

What I eventually realize is that perhaps, in one sense, the Olympics are a little different from any other sporting event, and thus the U.S. is a little different from any other team. I have a favorite basketball team after all, and a favorite hockey team, and I have no compunction about wanting them to whup some serious ass. And this goes well beyond the world of sports. Don’t we tend to identify with our alma maters, our places of work, our hometowns and our home states? Don’t we cheer on our friends when they run marathons or sing in bands? We all choose sides; it makes the game more interesting. So maybe that’s what somebody waving a flag is doing—picking a side and making some small statement about her identity, just as I do by wearing a Berkeley sweatshirt. We’re proud of where we come from; we care about what we know. The trick, I suppose, is not to let that sense of identity cloud the recognition that we belong to a community, whether one of cultures, colleges, or countries.
At the end of the freestyle moguls competition, two friends and I score a free American flag from a seller who’s feeling generous. After the initial elation at getting something for free wears off, I’m not sure what to do with this new possession. It has a nice heft to it, I have to admit. I tentatively wave it around a few times. The motion feels oddly satisfying, even nostalgic. Still, I have mixed feelings about my prize, and I leave the flag at home for the next few days. I think about carrying it alongside the German flag some spectators gave me at the ski jump competition. I think about drawing a big peace symbol over the stars and stripes, yet some long dormant awareness of flag protocol stops me.

Finally, at a flag store, I purchase a tiny flag for Peru and one for California, bypassing the New York flag, which is, unfortunately, hideous. My friend Beth buys the South Korean flag. We’ve been looking for the banned Taiwanese flag to protest a Chinese delegation that objected to a Utah resident’s flying it off his balcony, so we pick up one of those. And then our political impudence grows bolder, and my friend Jessica buys one each for the “axis of evil” countries: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. (Our resolve to display the first two of these lasts only as long as it takes us to walk back to the condo, after which our courage fails us).

At the Russia-Finland ice hockey game the next day, we brandish California, Taiwanese, and Peruvian flags; Finnish flags in support of Teemu Selanne, a right winger (by position—I’m not sure of his politics) for the San Jose Sharks; and cardboard signs we have made in a blatant effort to get on television. (Mine reads, “San Jose Sharks have the best Finns.”) I have my American flag with me, too. But despite my best efforts, I still can’t bring myself to hold it aloft. Midway through the game, I roll it up and shove it under my seat. Later, I lend my Finnish flag to a towheaded American boy sitting in front of me. He grins shyly, stands on his seat, and swings it solemnly back and forth.
The winner of he 90-meter ski jump is Simon Ammann, a 20-year-old Swiss dark horse who’s never won even a World Cup event before but who will go on to win the 120-meter event, too. His last jumps brings him the gold and he leaps into the arms of his countrymen, the crowd erupts in jubilation. I look around at the sea of spectators. Flags from the U.S., Germany, Poland, Finland, and Norway all wave at once. It’s a scene you’ll probably never see on television. I realize that an international lovefest like this might exist only in the bubble of the Olympics. But on this day, I really don’t care.


Patricia J. Chui

Patricia J. Chui is a writer and editor who lives in Carroll Gardens.


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