I am an American. I was born and raised on American soil and have never called any other country home, although my family is certainly not native. It has been several generations since my ancestors immigrated, however, and I have no familial ties to any of those countries beyond my last name—which we have Americanized so that the ‘w’ is not pronounced the Slavic way, like a ‘v.’
Yet I have never seriously considered the notion of whether I am “proud” to be an American. I am grateful to live here, of course, but the word my family uses most often is “lucky.” Lucky that we don’t still live in the places my great-grandparents left and lucky that my generation has grown up with more comforts than my parent’s generation, who had more comforts than their parents. Pride connotes a “satisfied sense of attachment,” according to Wikipedia, and I feel more pride towards my home state than I really do for the country as a whole.
I mention all of this because of the Olympic Games, that monolith of hubris and honor for man and country that takes place every four years. Due to yet more luck and a lot of fortuitous timing, I watched the Games in London stadiums instead of on my couch. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I enjoyed at a level beyond words. I tried to train my wide-eyed wonder into critical consideration, though, because I want to call myself a writer. A lot of my consideration wound up involving these questions of pride, as well as the questions I had about why the British eat so many prawns (also, what is a prawn).
We cheered for America because we are American, sure, duh. But a lot of what we cheer for is nuanced by what wins. This was evident in NBC’s very particular coverage of the Games, focusing pretty exclusively on high-ranking American events or foreign athletes destined for gold (exp. Gymnastics, Usain Bolt). The BBC had several channels devoted solely to the Olympics, and showed everything. And evident by at least what I saw in the stadium of the Aquatics Center, the British cheer for the British because they are just really proud to be supporting Britain.
Union Jack stockings. Team GB hats, ribbons flags. Walking into Olympic Park, you could spot a Team GB fan a mile away. Although our countries share national colors, you could tell a US fan from a British fan not only because we kept trying to walk on the right-hand side of the barriers, but because we were significantly less red-white-blue-bedazzled. When we did carry our Stars and Stripes flag with us, the Olympic volunteers found it very funny to shout at us, “Go Canada!”
I spent most of my live-viewing hours in the cheap seats of the Aquatics Center, watching a sport I had loved, hated, and practiced daily from the age of seven to eighteen. There were a decent number of Americans who had crossed the pond for the event, as well as large pockets of flag-waving Chinese and Japanese fans and a number of enthusiastic French people. Mostly, though, the second level of the Aquatics Center was filled with average British citizens. They came because it was here, in this country they loved, and they wanted to support their country. The ones sitting around us also didn’t really understand swimming. And although they didn’t understand the importance of the lane a swimmer was placed in, or the order of the Individual Medley, what they did understand was pride. I came to support USA, sure, but I came for specific athlete’s specific races, wanting to see these outcomes first-hand. British fans cheered—loudly and enthusiastically—for every red-capped Team GB athlete who walked to his or her starting block. The crowd could barely have been half British; the way the stadium exploded the whole island could have been there.
The kicker was this: they rarely—pretty much never—won. Not just didn’t win medals, but didn’t “win” heats fast enough to advance to Finals, or even Prelims. There were a few exceptions, mostly by female swimmers, but Great Britain didn’t get the third highest number of Olympic medals from swimming (65 for Team GB). British athletes excelled in equestrian and cycling and sailing, among other events. And here in the Aquatics Center were average, mild-mannered Brits, of middle age and toting small children, wearing more Union Jack-adorned items than I thought could ever be manufactured, screaming their heads off for athletes who would do fantastically well but never achieve the level of success that we as Americans assume is par the course. When a swimmer edged into the Preliminary round in 16th place, there was more noise than when any other country won gold. I imagined American viewers at home—frowning, fuming, vowing not to watch the determining race—if a favored athlete finished 16th
Cheering for a winner and cheering for a team are two different things, even when they collide. Maybe it took watching the Olympics to understand this because I don’t follow/understand/care about football-basketball-baseball teams at home. You cheer for your team because you are damn proud of them, win or lose, and although you really hope its win, a loss won’t diminish your pride. British fans around us were so excited about being British that I almost wanted to be British, too, until I remembered the prawn thing.
During one of the American “upset” races, South African Chad le Clos beat Michael Phelps for gold in the 200 meter butterfly. Phelps glided in and le Clos took the risky short stroke and touched him out. Wearing our hand-made USA T-shirts and waving dollar-store flags, we groaned and watched the replay of the finish with the veterans’ dismay of looking to the clock to realize you’ve been beat, but also with a slightly wounded pride: Phelps was our national hero; he was supposed to win, he needed to win. Then we all stood for the South African national anthem and watched a close-up shot of le Clos trying not to cry. None of us could watch him so filled with happiness and demonize him for winning or beating “us.” As the three winners walked around the stadium getting photographed, le Clos was clearly overwhelmed, and Phelps whispered something to him about where to stand and how to hold his medal to the best light. Social media would comment about how ‘cute’ a moment like that was, the prodigy taking the newcomer under his wing, but nothing made me more proud to be American: Phelps had lost graciously. How often does that happen in American sports, among teams as much as among fans (did I mention I’m from Eagles country)? In a few days Phelps would become the most decorated Olympian of all time, and Americans could go back to gloating without thinking about what it means to support these athletes just because they wear our colors in a particular pattern. Sometimes pride doesn’t come from fulfilling one group’s definition of success. We clapped our hands raw as le Clos, Phelps, and Takeshi Matsuda left the stadium, and sat down for the next race.