Olympic Whuppin's 

Am I the only one relishing the defeats of U.S. athletes?

Am I the only one relishing the defeats of U.S. athletes?

Reader warning: This column is anti-American and also sorta kinda pro-marijuana.

You may wish to stop reading now, unless you want John Ashcroft to regard you as an accessory to an enemy combatant.

Now, I know what you're probably thinking, and you're right: how can it be un-American to be against America's No. 1 cash crop, marijuana? Isn't that an affront to America's only remaining family farmers? You have a point, and we'll get to it momentarily.

But, first, my fellow Americans, let me explain how, as I surveyed the opening weekend of Olympic coverage, I found myself rooting against my fellow Americans.

It happened Sunday as I watched the plucky Puerto Rican roundballers humiliate the latest quadrennial incarnation of the U.S. Dream Team. With all due disrespect for our guys—who should have recognized their shaky performances in pre-Olympic exhibition games as a wake-up call—they played as if all they had to do was sashay in and collect their gold medals.

Appropriately enough, the ancient Greeks invented a word—hubris— for these guys. If hubris were an Olympic event, we'd sweep.

Instead, our team got dope-slapped by an assemblage of guys you never heard of. They thoroughly, fundamentally outplayed our NBA All-Star team. The Puerto Ricans, by the way, aren't even regarded as one of the stronger teams in the field.

Afterward, Allen Iverson at least had the sense and grace to advise youngsters to watch the non-Americans if they wanted to see how a team plays the game. But most of his colleagues remained stuck in a disbelieving state of "this ain't supposed to happen."

I suspect it will take more whuppin's in the Olympic tournament for these bozos to figure out that they must take the competition seriously. I'm OK with that. Actually, I enjoy seeing overbearing, overconfident overdogs get their comeuppance, even if they're our overdogs.

But it's more than that. The Bad-Dreamers are symptomatic of a commonly held American view of the world, one that exalts ourselves and respects no one. That view won't explain why we're hated in the backward societies of the Arab world, but it will tell you a lot about why we encounter so much ambivalence in so many other places.

On the plus side, maybe the basketball team's performance in its own way will constitute the "humble" foreign policy that President Bush and I admire.

Rooting against limo-riding NBA all-stars was easy. But I found myself also strangely relishing the defeats of some of our other Olympians—non-celebrities who trained hard and gave their best and whose only offense was to find NBC's spotlight trained on them.

I finally realized what it was: a reaction against media hype and shamelessly biased coverage that was every bit as arrogant as the biggest swaggerers on the men's basketball team.

I was ardently pro-American when our competitors were clear underdogs. But if you listened to hour after flag-draped hour of TV announcers unabashedly, steadily serving as U.S. cheerleaders, you might find yourself pulling for the other guys, too.

NBC has improved (if for no other reason than that gymnastics coverage is liberated from the unctuous John Tesh). This time, thank God, there are far fewer barf-inducing athlete profiles that give "triumph of the human spirit" a bad name.

Meanwhile, thanks to an ability to carry parts of the games on its various cable channels, NBC is broadcasting events that once drew virtually no U.S. coverage or don't involve U.S. participants. On Saturday, for instance, I saw part of a women's field hockey game between Germany and Australia. Any fan of ice hockey could appreciate this sport. But until this year, there was greater chance of Earth being attacked by Martians than of finding even one field hockey highlight on U.S. networks.

Still, NBC's gains remain overshadowed by play-by-play announcers who treat America as the center of the world and our opponents as foils du jour. NBC treats victory by non-Americans—such as the South African men's swimming relay team, which set a world record—not as a remarkable performance but as a U.S. failure.

Poor Michael Phelps, who already has won three medals as a 19-year-old, first-time Olympian but cannot win. Our media anointed him as the guy who would break Mark Spitz's record of seven golds, setting expectations so high that anything less will be perceived as a disappointment (or a choke). Ian Thorpe, the Australian who bettered Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle, holds the world record in that event. Nevertheless, the media coverage treated Phelps' bronze-medal win (a new U.S. record) as a defeat rather than great performances by the top two finishers, who reprised their duel in Sydney.

In my book, it does no favors to America to reinforce the impression of America as arrogant, overbearing and smugly uninterested in the world. Next time you're treated rudely in Spain or England (or Australia), be sure to thank Bob Costas.

Oops, I almost forgot the dope.

Against the considered opinion of the Media Geniuses, I found myself rooting not only for Puerto Rico but for Ricky Williams, late of the Dolphins and, lately, presumed to be firing up a fatty somewhere in Asia. When confronted with a dilemma, Ricky chose maryjane over Miami, retired from the NFL and bought a one-way plane ticket.

Williams' abrupt, surprising exit from pro football was widely linked to an earlier failed drug test and his professed love for cannabis. In that light, the media could portray the natty-dreaded Ricky as some Rastafarian nutbag, whose retirement betrayed the sacred bond of NFL teammate-hood and whose stated concern about the long-term effects of getting body-pounded 30 times a game marked him as a drug-addled pantywaist.

Well, pardon me, girls, but Brother Ricky has a point. When he looks at his role model, Earl Campbell, he sees a half-crippled NFL survivor who can no longer even walk up a flight of stairs. Sounds to me like he's anything but a head case for not wanting to end up like that. You might note that Jim Brown and Barry Sanders also retired in their primes. I would plunk down my paycheck to see what followed if Bob Ryan or Mike Lupica, two of our most noxious National Media Geniuses, suggested to Jim Brown's face that he was a gutless quitter.

True, Jim Brown didn't brag about smoking hemp when he wasn't playing football. But, even here, I think Ricky has a point.

Given the rigors of their travel schedules and the even more rigorous demands on their bodies, is anyone really surprised to read that around two-thirds of NBA players regularly use marijuana to unwind? With the toll that football takes—veteran after veteran will tell you that Monday morning feels like surviving a car wreck—it should be equally unsurprising if, as Williams claims, lots of players light up and drink some elixir that hides their pot usage from the NFL's drug testers.

While, as a responsible member of the media, I could never sanction illegal activity (speeders and expense-account fudgers, take note), I can at least understand why Ricky and his colleagues would feel inclined to partake of relaxing, if criminalized, herbal therapy. Especially when you consider all the perfectly legal, potentially dangerous substances that team personnel shoot through players' bodies to numb pain and keep them on the field, you might think it a tad hypocritical to get lathered up about athletes and pot.

I won't go so far as to make that claim, of course. I'm pretty sure it's a violation of the USA Patriot Act.


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