The Other Olympics

Why so little anti-Americanism?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Private Papers

Well apart from the obvious lessons of the recent Olympic games that the amazing Greeks really did pull it off at the eleventh hour without major terrorist incidents, there was another story that remained largely ignored.

Much of the truth of today’s global politics was as easily discernible in Athens as it was left unsaid. Americans, of course, are proud of the ability of the United States to outpace other nations in the medal count. It suggests that after the end of the Cold War—when there are no longer state-sponsored cheating, subsidized steroid use, and coercion behind the old Iron Curtain—America’s emphasis on individualism and meritocracy results in unrivaled athletic success.

Nowhere was that more evident than during the finals of the 200-meter race. The Greek fans, furious over the disqualification of their national hero, the sprinter Konstantinos Kenteris, directed their hoots toward the three American runners, Shawn Crawford, Justin Gatlin, and Bernard Williams—on the crazy premise that American conspiracies, not performance enhancing drugs, were somehow responsible for their own dashed hopes. After nerve-wracking boos, delays, and false starts, the Americans answered the crowd’s hostility by winning 1-2-3, in the first clean sweep of the 200 since 1984.

Otherwise there was little visible anti-Americanism in a country notorious for easy criticism of the United States—other than the Greek Communist Party’s infantile rage at a proposed visit from Colin Powell. Why was Athens not Seoul or Sydney when Americans were often booed? Pundits might allege that sensitivity training repressed natural American exuberance and high-fiving that in the past was seen as gloating and showboating. Perhaps.

But maybe a more circumspect world also realizes there is a weariness in the United States with knee-jerk anti-Americanism. The recent announcement of troop withdrawals from Europe and South Korea conveys the sober message to the world that the United States is ending the surreal past, when American soldiers subsidized allies’ defense, earning not gratitude, but more often envy and resentment from the classically dependent.

In the case of the Greeks, should they have habitually jeered to a global audience—as happened after September 11 in a soccer stadium in Athens—millions of Americans would have concluded that with nominal allies such as these who needs enemies? As it was thousands of Americans simply passed on the games as they now skip Greece itself. The mature hosts are starting to sense that all the old rules are over with and their own future in their rough neighborhood—a volatile Middle East, a rising Islamic tide in Turkey, and nearby terrorists—soon might well be in their own hands, without the partnership of the much maligned Sixth Fleet.

The subtle politics of the Middle East were also noticeable, though left unmentioned. Crowds cheered the Iraqi and the Afghan athletes, both in the opening and closing ceremonies, and during their occasional appearance in the games. Why? Because they were now for the first time in their history free? If so, why? Is it because the United States and its coalition risked blood and treasure to make it so?

The Iranian judo champ refused his match with an Israeli athlete—to the cheers and cash bounties of the mullocracy in Teheran. If the world doubts the need for collective scrutiny over Iran’s nuclear ambitions—one of the world’s largest petroleum producers that apparently requires alternate energy—we saw that it is still a crazy place that embraces institutionalized ethnic and religious hatred. Iranian theocrats alone seem to think Athens 2004 is Berlin 1936.

It was clear also just how out of touch the Arab Middle East has become. China, Indonesia, India, Africa, and Latin America sent hundreds of athletes of both sexes, whose dress and demeanor reflect an apparent global consensus that half the world’s population should enjoy real equality. Not so for most of the Islamic Middle East. Other than a handful of athletes from North Africa, Islamic women from the Arab world were virtually invisible (less than 10% of their delegations)—proof of this last outpost of gender apartheid.

Israel is a global pariah, mostly because of its small size, endemic anti-Semitism, petrol politics, and fears of terror. But Greece, no friend of Tel Aviv, sheepishly announced that Israeli companies, along with the American military, had played a critical role in supplying expertise and experience for its anti-terrorist defenses. So there is a vast gulf between truth and rhetoric. Nations pass resolutions damming the Jewish state; but when their own security and safety are endangered, then they really do turn to Israel and the United States for help.

The world is in public denial, but privately knows the real score in this so-called war against terror, and beneath the Olympic hype we saw that all too well.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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