Puerto Rico won its first Olympic gold medal Saturday when Monica Puig defeated Angelique Kerber to take the top prize in women's singles in tennis. Puerto Ricans on the island and off were ecstatic—like Hamilton author Lin-Manuel Miranda, who celebrated in a series of tweets—as Puig joined Puerto Rican sports legends like baseball Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Roberto Alomar; boxing champions like Wilfredo Benitez and Miguel Cotto; jockey Angel Cordero, Kentucky Derby and Belmont stakes winner Bold Forbes, and the horse's owner, Esteban Rodriguez Tizol—my grandfather. I wish my mother were alive to have seen Puig's victory, but she probably would've been more excited by the fact that legendary Puerto Rican entertainer (and aging Latina sex kitten) Iris Chacon liked one of my tweets about the gold medal.
Everyone roots for their home team—and for Americans the best thing about the Olympics is that you get to root for a few home teams, the United States and whatever land to which you can claim some familial connection, no matter how tenuous or folkloric it may be. And that's why so many Americans believe the Olympics have nothing to do with politics. For us, it's a colorful pageant where the brotherhood of man engages in an age-old celebration of physical excellence. For much of the rest of the world, it's a two-week-long game of keep-away in which America is the older brother who holds the ball over his younger brother's head and taunts him. There must be millions of people across the world thrilled by Sweden's victory over the U.S. women's soccer team, one of the most dominant forces in the game the entire world plays—which is to say, the world wishes the Americans would stick to their own sports and let us have just this one game for ourselves.
The truth is, the Olympics are all about politics. The games pit nations against each other and thus offer a ceremonial stage on which the character of nations is revealed in action. No American can be surprised that a large number of Russian athletes were disqualified for doping. The Eastern bloc nations famously did it during the Cold War. Russia is dirty. Their security services hack into American political institutions.
Hence, American fans exulted when one of their swimmers, Lilly King, called out her rival Yulia Efimova after the Russian wagged her finger in the air, #1, to celebrate her victory in a qualifying heat. King, who would eventually beat her for the gold, wagged her own finger to mock her, noting that Efimova, too, had been caught doping and was just recently reinstated. King's message was clear, just as it is clear that the Russians are dirty. You can bet if Lilly King were in the Oval Office she wouldn't partner with Vladimir Putin in Syria, like President Obama wants to. She knows the Russians are bad news, and she'd rather beat them.
Nations, like individuals, cannot help but show who they are. Qatar, for instance, isn't a natural wellspring of handball talent, so it bought its own handball team, just as the natural gas-rich emirate imports most its prestige items, like museums and universities. Bahrain doesn't grow marathon runners but imports them from Kenya, like silver medalist Eunice Kirwa.
And yet the United States also imported an awful lot of its athletic talent, by force. It's hard to imagine America leading the medal standings without the legacy of the African slave trade, which is kind of what John Carlos and Tommy Smith were getting at when they raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 games in Mexico City.
Even today, the American team is a reflection of our politics and culture, at its best and worst. The campaign to make fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad the flag-bearer for the U.S. delegation fell short, and Michael Phelps was awarded the honor to wave Old Glory in front of the world. He has more medals than any athlete in history. She's a talented athlete to be sure, but what distinguished the Muslim Olympian from her teammates is that she wears a headscarf. Presumably, the idea was that having her carry the flag would show the world that despite Donald Trump's bigoted comments, Muslims are a welcome part of the American fabric. Or maybe it was to prove that despite Barack Obama's decision to stand by as Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia kill hundreds of thousands of Sunnis in Syria, the United States still values Muslim lives.
No, everyone knows that politics are a central part of the Olympic games. When people say otherwise, when they say that some action was against the spirit of the games, they are simply employing the bad-faith circumlocution used to object ever so mildly to public shows of anti-Semitism at the games. When the Lebanese delegation refused to let the Israeli team on the same bus they were scheduled to share, the Lebanese acted against the spirit of the games. When the Egyptian judo player refused to shake his Israeli opponent's hand at the end of the match, his gesture was against the spirit of the games.
The issue is not that these actions were against the spirit of the games but rather that they referenced the most horrific moment in the history of the Olympics, the 1972 massacre at Munich, when 11 members of Israel's delegation were slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists. For decades, the International Olympic Committee repressed Munich and refused to officially commemorate the dead. It wasn't until this year in Rio that the IOC held a ceremony to remember the 11 victims, so it's hardly surprising Olympic officials would seek to downplay the latest demonstrations of the kind of ideas and actions that tend toward Arafatist exterminationism: Israel does not exist, so we must ignore it; Israel exists, so we must destroy it.
Yes, IOC officials reprimanded the head of the Lebanese delegation, and fans booed the Egyptian athlete, but that's not enough. Or imagine the response had an all-white Scandinavian delegation refused to get on a bus with athletes from an African nation, or a competitor refused to shake hands with a gay rival? There is no geopolitical rationale that would have allowed international elite opinion to excuse racism or homophobia. (Unfortunately, it has to be noted that Ibithaj Muhammad's Twitter feed evinces a peculiar obsession with the Jewish state that one is unlikely to find in the social media presence of, say, Ryan Lochte.) The obvious fact is that so-called political protests exclusively targeting athletes representing the Jewish state are by definition anti-Semitic. Neither Arab nor Iranian officials, nor the world's opinion leaders have the "occupation" as a justification any longer, not after the war Syria has killed ten times the number of Arabs and Muslims that have been killed in nearly 70 years of war against Israel.
For more than half a century, the majority Muslim Middle East has engaged in an epic celebration of identity: the Sectarian Games, which is of course the world's longest-running war. It is not just the Zionists and later the Israelis whom the Arab nations have targeted since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. More spectacularly, they went after each other, Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, majority populations against the minorities. Why, of course the Lebanese delegation threw the Israelis off the bus—the only way they can stand to be on the same bus with other Lebanese is by singling out an enemy they can all agree to hate.
After all, character is revealed through action. The Olympics are all about politics.