Something that’s plagued the international reputation of the United States throughout history is the notion of the “Ugly American” stereotype, which continues to scar many of the great successes we’ve seen from our country’s athletes over the years, including those in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The Summer Olympic Games serve two main purposes, the first of which is to showcase a smorgasbord of athletic competitions played at the highest level on an international platform. We saw the United States lead the medal count in the Summer Olympics for the fifth time in the last six Summer Olympics, behind herculean performances from standout athletes like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles. Seeing Phelps cement himself as one of the greatest athletes to ever compete, and watching Biles emerge as a young superstar after dominating the gymnastics floor, gave me another reason to have pride in my country. That patriotic feeling we get from seeing our fellow American citizens win medals is the underlying reason why many of the athletes are so eager to participate in the first place.
The second purpose of the Summer Olympic Games is to provide an environment, free of politics and negativity, to be able to appreciate the myriad of other represented countries for producing awe-inspiring athletes, and appreciating the cultures that those athletes pride themselves upon. This is especially important for the United States, as many other countries look toward us and recognize the US as an influential and powerful nation. Unfortunately, we were unable to do much towards alleviating that disrespectful “Ugly American” stereotype while in Rio.
After a loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the Women’s Soccer Tournament, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo called her Swedish opponents “A bunch of cowards.”. Shortly thereafter, the United States Soccer Federation suspended Solo for six months, and her contract with the U.S. national team was terminated, but the damage had already been done. One short post-game interview had quickly managed to pin the United States as sore losers and as bullies for trying to take away from what was an effective strategy for the Swedes. Winning and losing with class is common courtesy in all sports, and in Olympic competition, it represents a mutual respect between nations beyond the scope of athletic competition.
In retrospect, emotions were probably extremely high after this loss for the U.S. Soccer Team, considering that the U.S. women had never failed to make it to the medal round before, and the fact that they lost on penalty kicks after a hard fought game. Regardless, on a stage as large as the Olympics, it is hard to find sympathy for Solo for her comments.
To make matters even worse, it was discovered that U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte fabricated a story about being held at gunpoint and robbed by police impersonators at a gas station. Lochte and a few other swimmers left a party intoxicated, and were responsible for vandalizing the aforementioned gas station, and for causing damage to its bathroom. Crime in the host city, Rio de Janeiro, is a significant problem in part due to Brazil’s economic downturn and other incidents had been occurring during the games. This incident did nothing but further damage the city’s image. Once the truth of the matter was discovered, tensions between Brazil and the United States started, with both sides wanting to get the situation resolved on their terms. The lack of honesty, maturity, and responsibility from Lochte ultimately resulted in him losing nearly all of his endorsements, and he may be facing further criminal charges in Brazil.
International Olympic Committee spokesman Mario Andrada said of the Lochte incident, “We have to understand that these kids came here to have fun. Let’s give these kids a break.”. It’s hard to use that excuse when Lochte is a 32 year old with prior Olympic experience, and should understand exactly what it means to represent America both in and out of the pool by now.
He and Solo should recognize after competing multiple times at the Olympics, that they not only represent themselves, but the nation of America, and that their seemingly small actions could potentially have political implications. This may leave a stain on America and American culture for the short term, but the best thing we can do is to hold our athletes accountable and look forward to being more respectful, more observant, and just as competitive at the next Summer Olympics in Tokyo.