National pride is a sensation that — for most of us — rarely manifests itself in a profound way. As Americans, the concept of nationalism is more or less implicit. We’re intrinsically proud to be American (with caveats) but rarely wake up with a burning desire to be closer to Uncle Sam.
It’s for this reason that you don’t commonly observe reverent citizens gathered around American flags in the streets of US cities or see 50,000 people breaking down in tears before sporting events when the Star Spangled Banner is performed.
Indeed, the two most tangible representations of American nationalism — the flag and the national anthem — are so omnipresent that more often than not they evoke a sense of formality rather than one of visceral emotion. In my lifetime there have only been two recurring instances where I’ve felt an instinctive and deep-seated connection to my flag and national anthem.
First is when I’m traveling abroad. Exploring the culture and examining the history of foreign lands has always piqued my interest. It’s also summoned my frequently dormant patriotism.
(Case in point: A vacation I was on in Normandy, France. A friend of mine owns a seaside house on Omaha Beach, site of the American invasion into German-occupied France during World War II. Situated a mere half-mile or so from my friend’s property is the Normandy American Cemetery, a magnificent and powerful memorial that contains the remains of the thousands of American military that perished in the D-Day battle. On a balmy June morning a few years back, I led 15 excited French kids up the hill that adjoins to the Cimetiere Americain while belting out the Star Spangled Banner. It was a goofy and endearing sequence that was also one of most prideful moments I’ve ever had as an American. Chances are it shall remain such.)
The only other happening that can arouse my inner patriotism is the Olympics. I enjoy the clash of countries and cultures through the competition of sport. Frequently I will casually tune into some coverage knowing it’s only a matter of time before I’m totally swept up: as a sports fan, as a journalist, as an American.
This happened on Sunday night, or day three of the 2008 Beijing Games. Work had precluded me from watching any of the Opening Ceremonies or early events, so I was already psyched to get my first dose of the summer games since Athens.
Political and idealogical implications of these Olympics notwithstanding, Michael Phelps’ quest for Olympic immortality (eight gold medals) has been top news thus far. He took home his first gold in the 400 meter individual medley, which preceded what was said to be his toughest event, the 4 x 100m freestyle relay. It was purported to be his sole “long shot” because he would need to rely on three other guys to have a chance.
I don’t know a whole lot about the event, but I do know that the Americans owned it from 1964 through 1996. They relinquished their stranglehold on gold in the 2000 Sydney Games at the hands of the host Aussies before slipping to bronze medal status in Athens four years ago.
Leading up to Beijing, gold in the men’s relay became synonymous with the French. They were the presumptive favorites. Quite presumptive in fact. The French anchor and world-record holder in the 100m freestyle, Alain Bernard, took it up a notch, saying, “The Americans? We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.”
And so French — again — became synonymous with tactless arrogance.
Since I’ve spent so much time in France, love the language and may very well reside there one day, I’ve always had the back of the French when unknowing folks take unfounded shots at them. Which only serves to underscore the wave of patriotism and French antipathy I suddenly harbored upon seeing those comments.
Wait, you’re talkin about my boys? Faux real?! I stewed. Oh it’s on now Frenchy!
As the race began — with Phelps swimming the lead-off leg — I was locked in. Sure enough, the Americans fell behind during the middle legs. By the time the American anchor, Jason Lezak, hit the water, he was more than a half-second behind the world-record holding Bernard (which I’m pretty sure is a hell of a lot).
He made up no eau in the first 50 meters and needed a miraculous push in the home stretch to have any shot at thwarting the brash Frenchman. With a little more than 30 meters to go he started to make his move. The crowd felt it. At 20 meters he had gained more ground, at 10 slightly more.
With one final dominating stroke, Lezak pulled into the end wall a fraction of a second ahead of Bernard — eight-hundredths of a second to be exact. It was so close that Phelps and the rest of the team — along with the announcers — had to look at the official scoreboard to affirm their rapturous delight.
What followed was a state of euphoria experienced communally by the improbable gold medalists, the delirious announcers, the awestruck crowd and every proud American following it all half a world away.
Phelps struck a muscle pose that could grace the cover of any fitness magazine. The broadcaster’s voice cracked. I jumped up and nearly hit the ceiling.
The quest for unprecedented gold continued.
And to think, ten minutes before that piece of history I was mindlessly channel surfing my way through an otherwise mundane Sunday night.
That’s the glory of the Olympics.