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I think I’ve been writing this column for too long.
I sat down Wednesday evening to start writing and my mind turned to the Olympics. While viewership is way down, it is still a spectacle of human achievement. And a showcase of human fallibility.
At the time I started writing, the United States led the total medal count with 79. However, China topped the gold medal chart with 32. That was going to lead me to a conversation about the respective merits of the American system when compared to Communist China.
This piece was going to explore the “gold medal academies” run by the Chinese government. It would point out that the athletes would be sequestered from the age of 12 — or earlier — away from their families to work six days a week, year round, for the express purpose of winning gold medals.
It would contrast this singular, centrally-planned, party-imposed focus with the freedom and individuality of the United States. Which gives us stories like Simone Biles, who went from foster care, to adoption by grandparents, to homeschooling by their families, en route to world renown as one of the greatest-ever gymnasts.
Then, when Biles made the decision to temporarily step away at the height of competition, it would highlight the ability to have a public conversation around her choice. Whether it was praised or critiqued, people were free to discuss and opine.
The same freedom of expression doesn’t really exist with the Chinese athletes.
Then I looked at some of my old columns. And, five years ago, I lamented — cheekily — the fall of the Soviet Union, because it provided a remarkable foil to the United States. Having an “other” helped give our nation a common identity to rally around. Like in “Rocky IV.”
In 2016, I was worried that our domestic political debates had wormed their way into what should be a unifying exercise.
Back then, it was gun control “advocates” mocking a 19-year old American woman for winning gold in a shooting event. Today, it is the glee in some circles that followed the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s semi-final loss to Canada after their efforts to “take a knee” during the National Anthem.
Some of the details change, but the headlines often remain the same.
During the Cold War, one of the pithier Soviet critiques occurred during the Space Race. With Sputnik, the Soviets were occupying space. American troops were “occupying” Little Rock in an effort to force integration. It seemed as if the Soviets were taking the lead in world affairs.
That led into the 1960 Olympics. Where the Soviets won the overall medal count and the gold medal count.
But we know how the story ends. The Soviet Union’s advantage dissipated in the following decades. American resilience led the United States to land the first man on the moon. The Soviets tried to keep up, which exposed fissures in their system, which led to its downfall.
So, for those watching Olympic medal counts, China has the lead. They probably won’t keep it. But, even if they do, it is far from the end for the United States. Because you don’t grow a Simone Biles — or a Katie Ledecky, or a Sydney McLaughlin — in some sequestered, government facility.
They are all made in America, and they each represent the possibilities that exist in each individual. And no matter how many columns I write, that is always going to be a story worth telling.