The Best U.S. Summer Olympic Team Ever
After the Jamaican 4x100 relay team, anchored by Usain Bolt, had lowered the world record to 36.84 seconds in the final event on the track at the London 2012 Olympics, there was one last news conference under the stadium, at which Bolt and the others on the winning team held court.
During the meet, of course, Bolt had repeatedly shown off his "To Di World" pose. Yohan Blake, his training partner and the world's second-best sprinter, had similarly offered up for the television cameras interpretations of his nickname "The Beast," posing with his "claws."
Now, at this last news conference, Blake shared these thoughts about the Jamaican sprint team: "We're not normal. To run 36 [seconds] is not normal. We're flying. People call us robots. I said, 'No, we're from space. We drop from the sky like Mr. Bean. Because when he started he dropped out of the sky.' It's just the fun stuff, you know, that we always do. I'm from Mars because I'm not normal. I'm 'The Beast.' "
To which Bolt said, "Yohan is crazy. If he keeps talking like that, someone is going to put him in a straight jacket one day."
There are two lessons here.
One: Usain and Yohan can do and say what they like, and it's all in good fun. Track and field needs a lot more fun, frankly.
Two: If Usain and Yohan were Americans, and they did this kind of stuff, there likely would be hell to pay. Double standards are unfair, but that's life.
It's always going to be different for Americans. It just is.
Just in case there is any doubt that we in the United States are viewed differently than everyone else:
During the women's indoor volleyball gold-medal match in London between the U.S. and Brazil, there were unceasing boos from many in the Brazilian section in the crowd virtually every time the Americans served.
During a Games that was memorable for so many fine reasons, arguably a best-ever summer Olympics for a multitude of logistical and legacy reasons, this was a jarring note that served -- again -- as a reminder of the United States of America's unique station in our world.
And perhaps -- only perhaps -- of what awaits the U.S. team at the next summer Games, four years from now in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
There were no slip-ups from the 2012 U.S. team -- at least none that came to light publicly.
That sentence is not in there as if there's something hidden. That's not the case. To reiterate: no slip-ups that we know of now. For now, credit to all involved.
The caveat, and this is only cautionary journalism rooted in years of experience: let's simply see if, as time unfolds, we learn of unfortunate incidents like smuggled guests into the athletes' village in 2008 in Beijing, courtesy of soccer star Hope Solo's disclosure a few weeks back to ESPN The Magazine.
In our world, there simply can't be any slip-ups.
Even if it's serious, like guests in the village in 2008, or silly nonsense, like talk about being from Mars, Americans have to conduct themselves differently on the Olympic stage.
That's reality when you are the world's lone super-power; when you have an army on the ground in Afghanistan; when sports and politics shouldn't mix but inevitably do, and everyone needs to remember that always and at all times.
Twelve years ago in Sydney, the American 4x100 relay team preened and clowned its way through their victory lap and even afterward. My former boss, Bill Dwyre, then the sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, put it so succinctly and appropriately, calling it the "bad-taste-in-the-mouth gold medal."
A huge difference with Bolt and Blake, by the way: they were magnificently respectful during the playing of not only their national anthem but others as well. Bolt stopped dead during an interview session in what is called the "mixed zone" -- where reporters mix with athletes -- and came to abrupt attention while the American anthem was played. When the music stopped, he resumed the interview.
The USOC has over the past few Olympic cycles put into place what it calls an "Ambassador" program that aims to relay the distinct challenges of being an American athlete at the Games. Most if not all U.S. Olympic athletes go through the program before a Games.
At the same time, make no mistake, the USOC's mission is to win medals.
The U.S. team left London atop the medals count, gold and overall, with 46 and 104. It won the overall medals count in Vancouver in 2010, with 37. It is very, very likely to challenge for -- if not win outright -- the medals count in Sochi in 2014, now just a mere year and a half away, because of an avalanche of new action sports -- slope style and halfpipe events, in particular -- that figure to play to U.S. strengths.
At the U.S. Olympic Committee's wrap-up news conference in London, board chair Larry Probst said, "We like to come in first. There's nothing wrong with that," adding a moment later, "I like to hear 'The Star-Spangled Banner.’ A lot."
Probst has every right to make such comments. They're the farthest thing from a declaration of American superiority or, worse, obnoxiousness. In Beijing in 2008, the Chinese won more gold medals than the Americans; the Americans won more medals overall.
In London, again, the Americans topped both tables. To put this in its proper perspective: the USOC's annual budget runs to about $135 million, about what Ohio State spends annually on its athletic department. All USOC revenue has to be raised from corporate and other private donations. Compare: every other national Olympic committee in the world is an arm of its federal government. For the USOC -- and the national governing bodies that feed into the USOC -- to come out on top is, in a word, amazing.
More amazing, and yet not, is that, as USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun put it in at that same wrap-up news conference in London, U.S. athletes "comported themselves in a way that made America proud." He said, "We wanted to be good guests while we were in Britain," and they were.
Probst said, too, "When we leave London, do people perceive our athletes as good ambassadors for the United States? I think the answer is a resounding yes. We are really proud of them."
This week, most of America's athletes will be settling back into their lives, back in their towns, home with their families and friends. The numbers say most did not medal. That's a fact of Olympic life, too. No matter. It's like Probst and Blackmun said -- this, if you count medals and then the measure that counts in the way people everywhere else perceive us as Americans, was the most successful U.S. Olympic team ever, and from New York to California the people of the United States have every right to be "really proud of them."