What I do for a living can be a funny business. A sports columnist is paid to share opinions but also to have detached neutrality, which can be at odds. For example, I’m supposed to be dispassionate when writing about the Dolphins even though I grew up here as a fan and naturally prefer my community to enjoy success and be happy.
With these Summer Olympics, though, I don’t even pretend neutrality. They remind me I am an American before I’m a journalist; it’s about who you are at the core as opposed to what you do for a living. So I watch the London Games like many of you: Cheering unabashedly for my country, nearly to the point of jingoism, I’d admit.
The Olympics do strange things to the fan in you when you are rooting for a uniform and the sport hardly matters. I have little interest in the majority of Olympic events but find myself pausing the TV on oddities like equestrian dressage, badminton or synchronized diving in case there might be an American competing who could use the good vibe of my far-flung support.
Not all American Olympians are equal, though.
That became clear to me Monday as, back-to-back, I watched the U.S. women’s soccer team rally to beat Canada and then watched LeBron James and Team USA whip Argentina in basketball.
The difference in how those two games weighed in on an emotional level was a revelation.
Women’s soccer drew me in, hit me in the heart and had me on my feet, in a way men’s basketball did not.
Part of that was how the two games went, sure. LeBron and his fellow stars, after a sluggish first half, stormed to an easy victory the way all knew they would, while Hope Solo and her band of soccer fighters rallied from not one, not two, but three deficits to finally win 4-3 in the last seconds of double-overtime.
The thriller advanced the U.S. women to Thursday’s gold-medal match against Japan, while the basketball yawner moved the men ahead to a Wednesday game against Australia for a spot in the semifinals.
I doubt I am alone in wanting the American women to win soccer gold more than I want those NBA superstars to do the same in basketball. It isn’t even close. And you surely need not prefer soccer to basketball to think as I do.
Is it that LeBron and Co. are overwhelming favorites almost to the point of it seeming unfair? Almost to the point of feeling sorry for the next opponent?
Not mostly. After all, our women’s soccer team also is very good, too good to play any Lovable Underdog card. And guilt over dominance tends to be swept away by a decent “U-S-A!” chant.
The difference mostly has to do with how one defines the Olympic ideal, and the ideal Olympics.
For me, the Olympic ideal/ideal Olympics is that the Games should be about athletes who work and devote entire lives to these moments, not about athletes to whom the Olympics are merely a sidelight, a novelty.
That is the fundamental difference between U.S. women’s soccer and — sorry, LeBron — the millionaire superstar celebrities on our men’s basketball team.
The women soccer players are not amateurs, technically, but they are compared to the NBA stars. Their league, small-salary Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), folded right out from under their feet in the build-up to these Games. Every American soccer player will be defined by her team’s finish in London; no NBA star will be. Consider that even if the unthinkable happens and Team USA fails to win gold, LeBron James will return to Miami and the solace of an NBA championship ring, worldwide fame and an annual income exceeding $20 million.
Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and the rest have more of their lives on the pitch in London than those NBA stars do, and it shows. You see it in the faces, in the passion.
You feel it.
The best moments of an Olympics are the ones owned by athletes closest to the Olympic ideal, the now-quaint notion of amateurism.
It’s great to see celebrity Olympians such as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt shine, but even better, somehow, to see young athletes such as swimmer Missy Franklin or gymnast Gabby Douglas arrive at an Olympics fame-free and rise on the biggest stage they have ever experienced to see their dreams come true right before our eyes.
It gets back to the Olympic ideal, to the ideal Olympics.
LeBron, Kevin Durant and their fellow superstars clutching gold medals would be seen as a bigger story by far, but the U.S. women’s soccer team doing the same would feel like a better one, at least to these American eyes.