A Grain Of Saul

A Grain Of Saul: I'm Not Only Proud Of The U.S. Olympic Medals, I'm Proud Of What They Represent

The best of America can be found in our athletes, even the ones who don't win gold.

Over the course of the next few weeks, you'll hear a lot about the most successful American athletes at the Olympic games: Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, Ryan Murphy, and in all likelihood the entire U.S. basketball team. 

Others will rise to the front pages before the games are over. Politicians will praise our athletes for representing us so well. People will talk about the gap between the U.S. and the countries with the second and third most medal counts, and American athletic exceptionalism will, as it always does, dominate the headlines. 

But there is something larger at work, too.

America's success in Rio isn't just about a group of men and women who live in an athletic stratosphere that most of us can't comprehend. In fact, our dominance might have just as much to do with a game of numbers than anything else: we're 35th at the Olympics in per capita medal count so far, suggesting that the large pool of awesome athletes we get to pull from probably aides our dominance in the medal count.

Perhaps most important to me is that the men and women we sent to the Olympics are extraordinarily diverse. In fact, men and women isn't a bad place to start: team USA is represented by 263 men and an astounding 292 women, the most women ever representing any Olympic team in the history of the competition. It's also the second time the U.S. has sent more women than men to the games — the first being the 2012 Olympics inLondon, where we sent 269 women and 261 men. And that was the first time any country sent more women than men to the Olympics. (There are, of course, about 6 million more women in the U.S. than men, so it should be natural that they are more represented in the Olympics.)

But it's not just gender. Racial and ethnic diversity on this year's team is worth considering, too. Perhaps the most obvious representation is the women's gymnastics team, which has absolutely destroyed the competition and is one of the most diverse teams U.S. history: Madison Kocian, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, and Laurie Hernandez represent white, black, Jewish and Latina athletes, respectively.


At 16-years-old, Hernandez is the first U.S.-born Latina to represent the U.S. in gymnastics since Tracee Talavera did it in 1984. Four years before that, in 1980, there wasn't a single African-American athlete on any of the U.S. gymnastics teams. This year, there were two — Biles and Douglas — on the women's team alone. Simone Manuel became the first African American swimmer to ever win gold last week. 

In fencing, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American athlete to compete in a Hijab. Of the 10,000 athletes competing in Rio, U.S. Kayaker Ashley Nee is one of only 30 openly gay athletes at the olympics this year.

But we're just getting started: 47 members of the 555 person team, or eight percent, weren't born in the United States. Basketball star Kyrie Irvin and rugby phenom Madison Hughes were born abroad to U.S. citizen parents. Tennis star Denis Kudla was born in Kiev, Ukraine but came here as a child.

According to immigrationimpact.com, Hillary Bor, Paul Chelimo, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Leonard Korir were all born in Kenya, enlisted in the U.S. army, trained with the military's World Class Athlete Program, got citizenship here in the U.S. and are now competing for the track and field team.

Charles Jock is a runner who found asylum is San Diego after being born in an Ethiopian refugee camp during a Sudanese civil war. Daniel Levya was born in Cuba and is now a U.S. gymnast. Jay Shi was born in Beijng and came here at the age of 11 to get treatment for an eye injury. Now, he used that same eye to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic Shooting Team. That's my America.

But the best part is that the U.S. Olympic Committee wants to get even better. Via teamusa.com

The Olympic and Paralympic Movements can thrive in the United States only if the entire U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Family strives to reflect the changing faces of the nation. By welcoming individuals from every background and creating opportunities for the best athletes to compete at the elite level, the USOC will continue to build a diverse group of strong role models to inspire the next generation of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The goal of the USOC Diversity and Inclusion program is twofold: to increase performance and ensure long-term support for Team USA and National Governing Bodies by harnessing the synergy of many diverse talents into a high-performing team. 

Interestingly, the diversity of the U.S. Olympic athletes isn't the only reminder of how we have paved a new path: even when the U.S. loses, one can be reminded that a country who used dominate the medal per capita count — frequently finishing in the top twenty — also helped pioneer the sports science that has helped many other countries catch up. 

"Hundreds of factors shape today's global sporting map but one crucial trend, welcomed by many of America's most successful competitors, is the honing of sports science programs," Nico Hines wrote for The Daily Beast. "The U.S. was a sports science trailblazer in the late '70s and '80s, but understanding its importance is no longer enough to stay ahead of the game. The globalization of sports science has begun to level the playing field."

In other words, the sports science that the U.S. revolutionized has since reached so many other nations that it no longer serves as an advantage for the U.S. That kind of scientific pioneering, paving the way in the advancement of a field, is something I want my nation to be known for.

Of course, our flaws were also on display: Hope Solo called Sweden "cowards" after they knocked the women's team out in quarters. Nothing like some brazen name-calling after a defeat to make you think of America. Lily King took a more Hollywood route: bravado, wagging her finger at rival Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who has twice been convicted for doping. Thankfully, the U.S. Olympic team came into the games clean. Well, except for that one guy.

But we've also carried ourselves with class. Nobody was skipping handshakes like the Egyptian judo wrestler who refused to shake hands with an Israeli. We celebrated each other, too, winning as a team, something British gymnast Louis Smith sort of forgot to do

At the end of the day, the Olympic team also reminded us what it takes to be a champion. Almost every athlete I saw who medaled preached a similar formula: hard work, respect for the people that trained you and came before you, and love for what you're doing. 

If there's an America that I love, it's that America: a hard working, intelligent, pioneering and diverse one, with just a dash of that bravado. 

Isaac Saul is a reporter for A Plus and author of his weekly column "A Grain of Saul." You can follow him on Twitter


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