Headed into these Tokyo Olympics, I didn’t know how much I would watch. I’ve been a sucker for the Olympics forever, but lifeless, fan-less venues were an impediment, and the threat of repellent activism from U.S. athletes did not help.
But as I occasionally dipped into coverage, I found moments of triumph by our athletes, coupled with objectively compelling dramas featuring other nations, that drew me in. I was on the edge of my seat watching a Turkish guy edge an Italian guy for a gold medal in archery. Such are the usually happy surprises of the Olympics.
I enjoyed seeing the USA medal totals lead the world, but some of the singular moments fell short. Simone Biles’ “head space” struggles were followed by a stellar gymnastics performance by Suni Lee, but she had to scold us that she did not feel the team “owed” gold medals to anyone, and that “we did this for ourselves.”
At least I did not get the sense that anyone on the gymnastics team despises America. Those bitter sentiments fell to hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who turned away from the flag at the Olympic trials and promised to do so again in Tokyo, and shot-putter Raven Saunders, who crossed her arms above her head in an “X” gesture on the silver medal stand in support of “oppressed people.”
Saunders did not insult an anthem moment as Berry did, but the message is the same: my country is a racist scourge. Americans are free to hold and express harsh views of our nation, in stark contrast to countless athletes from genuinely oppressive regimes, but it remains a colossal affront to carry those complaints onto a stage that should be about proudly representing the nation and reserving any condemnations for other times and places.
Memories naturally return to the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand in Mexico City in 1968. The same standard applied even then, but with Martin Luther King Jr. killed six months earlier in an America where “colored” water fountains and segregation could still be found, that protest has drawn greater ambivalence over the years.
Activist gestures of revulsion toward America in 2021 are a vastly different exercise. The floor will always be open to discussions of the nation’s various ills, but the all-too-familiar displays of derision from athletes have become an act that has grown old.
As it turns out, Gwen Berry did not medal in the hammer throw, depriving her of another opportunity to drench an achievement in resentful protest. But across town in the Makuhari Messe Hall, an African-American woman won a gold medal in wrestling. Her reaction and comportment afterward have been a tonic for the soul.
Tamyra Mensah-Stock is 28. Her Ghanaian immigrant father met her mother in Illinois, where Tamyra was born. After moving to Texas, she rocketed to success in high school and college wrestling. She was a practice partner for the U.S. wrestling team in Rio in 2016. In 2019, she won gold in the 68 kg class at the World Wrestling Championships in Kazakhstan and qualified for our 2020 Olympic team. Like every other Olympian, she waited the extra year for a moment to shine.
She shone brightly on the mat, and her light beamed even more brightly in her interviews afterward. Many American athletes will bring home gold medals. None will attract the appreciation Tamyra will receive for daring to show actual love for the nation which has made her success possible.
Draped in an American flag moments after her gold-medal win, she was bursting with proper pride at her own achievements: “I prayed that all the practice, and the hell that my freaking coaches put me through pays off—and every single time it does, and I get better and better… I’m excited to see what I have next.”
As well she should be. As are we all. But then the interviewer asked about the flag around her shoulders. “How does it feel to represent your country like this?”
In her unforgettable words that followed, Tamyra did more in 20 seconds than I could ever do in hours of lectures about why love of country is such a precious commodity and why it must never pass from favor.
“It feels amazing,” she began. “I love representing the U.S. I freaking love living there, I love it, and I’m so happy I get to represent U…S…A!” Her hands joined in a heart shape as she literally jumped for joy, Tamyra in that moment saved the Olympics for me, and for millions who wondered if such effusive gratitude was approaching extinction.
This is what it means to represent the nation. This is what it looks like to give 100 percent, achieve victory and then direct unapologetic love back to your admiring countrymen. The contrast could not be starker with those athletes who choose to poison their moments in the spotlight with self-absorption and grievance.
Tamyra’s burst of patriotic exultation does not mean we are a nation without problems. Our embrace of her does not mean we have no appetite for addressing those problems. Her wondrous achievement and inspiring demeanor provide an oasis in what has been for years a desert filled with athletes who feel the obligation to make us feel miserable while watching them.
Against that backdrop, what a joy it was to see an American athlete—and an African-American woman at that-- deliver precisely the kind of unifying, uplifting moment we needed to balance the sour finger-wagging that has driven millions away from their appreciation of sports.
In Tokyo, Tamyra gave her all, and then gave us an even greater reason to cheer for her. Half a world away, we freaking loved it.