It must be extraordinary to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games. The excitement, the ecstasy, and the fulfillment are surely overwhelming. But have our athletes lost their sense of pride in something larger?
Like many, I was excited when our hometown boy, Shaun White, won the gold medal in the men’s snowboarding halfpipe. But I was equally disappointed by his irreverent display during the medals ceremony. He and his teammate, Scotty Lago, who took home the bronze, waved to the crowd, jumped up and down, gave “thumbs-up” and “No. 1” fingers to onlookers – all during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I remember when American Olympic champions actually placed their right hands over their hearts, sang along (and knew the lyrics), and shed at least a tear or two. In fact, this inspired me so much as a kid, that my brothers and I would do tricks off the diving board while our parents served as judges. Afterwards, I would force my older brothers to suffer through “medals ceremonies,” and sing along to the national anthem.
White was not the first medalist to show a little irreverence on the medals platform. In fact, one of the most defiant moments in U.S. Olympic history happened well before Shaun White and I were born. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists for the 200 meter, raised their fists giving the “power to the people” salute in protest as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during their ceremony. Intense controversy swirled and the two African-American athletes even faced death threats upon their arrival back in the States.
What makes Smith’s and Carlos’s moment of gross irreverence so inspiring, as opposed to White’s and Lago’s, is the commitment that was behind the 1968 protest. There, we see two heroes, painfully aware – even at the height of their own Olympic glory – of the true state of the world and of their homeland. Smith and Carlos demonstrated a real sense of patriotism. Knowing quite well that their act would draw fierce criticism and harm their reputations, they were committed to something bigger and were unafraid to show it to the entire world.
While Smith and Carlos left behind the haunting image of two champions with bowed heads and raised fists, I question what image White and Lago will leave. Is White aware of the colors he represents? Does he care? I understand an athlete’s job is not necessarily to pay attention to the political climate, much less speak to it. But I question what boys and their big brothers will be inspired to mimic in backyard medals ceremonies after this year’s Olympic Games.
Arlon Jay Staggs received his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Mississippi College School of Law in 2000. He is a professional writer, business owner, professor, and activist. Even though his opinions are usually spot-on, they are not necessarily the views of SDGLN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.