Preemptive Disclaimer: Though it took me twenty-five years to become one, I am currently an American citizen, and have been one for over ten years. However, when it comes to international hockey, and the innate components of the American character, I revert to Canadian. For those of you scoring at home, in the following report, “they” means Americans, “we”, what I used to be. Okay, here we go.
They can’t help it. It’s against their cultural DNA.
Witnessing the recent Olympics, the conclusion seems glaringly apparent:
America has serious difficulty with the “bronze.”
(Also, the “silver”, but the “bronze” is worse.)
You watch an American bronze medal winner being interviewed on TV, and, though they say all the right things, their body language reflects someone in close proximity to some awful-smelling cheese. And they’re the cheese.
Canadians are used to not being first. Look who we live beside. When the U.S. hockey team tied the score in the last twenty-five seconds, sending the gold medal showdown into “sudden death” overtime, I could hear Canadians from sea to shining sea thinking, “Here we go again.” I didn’t have to leave the house. I could hear myself thinking it.
Fortunately, we were wrong. But that’s part of our national character. Not being wrong; thinking we’ll be second.
If Americans believe “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”, what do you do with “third?” “Third” has no value in this system. It's like showing up at the Prom with the third prettiest girl in the class.
To Americans, a bronze medal screams, “Not first.” A bronze medal-winner returns to his hometown:
“Did you win?”
“I won the bronze.”
“The bronze is for third.”
“Then you didn’t win.”
There’s a look in an American bronze medal winner’s face that reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Was it frustration, humiliation, embarrassment, shame? A little of all of them, I suppose, but there was something else there as well. And then it hit me. I remembered the look.
It was the look on my brother’s face when he hit me with an arrow.
When we were kids, for some reason, we had actual weapons around the house: a World War II bayonet, a fencing sword (with a felt-covered point), a Bowie knife, an air rifle and a real bow with steel-tipped arrows.
And we were city folk!
One day, my brother was playing with the bow and arrow. I stood off to the side, waiting for my turn. My brother aimed at a wooden fence post. The arrow hit the post, but instead of sticking in, it flipped up and changed directions, hitting me just above my upper lip. I still have the scar.
There was a trickle of blood, some shock and surprise, and the inevitable crying. I turned to my brother. And to this day I can remember the unmistakable look on his face. The look said:
“I’m going to get yelled at.”
That’s the look I see in American athletes who capture the “bronze.” While their mouths are saying, “It was an honor just to participate,” their little boy faces are saying, “We’re going to get yelled at.”
(This reaction is less apparent with the female athletes, with the exception the U.S. women’s hockey team, when, uh, well, we beat them too.)
My brother deserved to get yelled at. He maimed a sibling. (Though I was standing unsafely close.) But yelling at Olympic bronze medal winners? Heck, they’re the third best in the world. Six billion people in the world, are you kidding me? That’s really up there! Third in the world – that’s in the ninety-nine point nine, nine, nine, nine, and a lot of other nines, percentile best at whatever it is they do.
Hey, bronze medal winners! You competed against the most talented people on the planet, and you beat them all, except for two. And in some cases, it was really close. Fractions of a second between you and the winner.
Who would yell at you for that?
Certainly not your parents. Unless they’re “Jim-Piersall’s-father-live-though-my-child” crazy, parents are happy and proud and relieved for no major injuries. If they feel any pain at all, it’s from identifying with their kid’s disappointment, but that’s good parenting. That’s “I care” with tears.
The trouble is, since “not first” is "un-American", anything less feels like, “I let you down.” There is no comfort in, “Some athletes didn’t win anything.” That's like parents driving their kids through the poor areas, so they’ll stop complaining about wanting better sneakers. It doesn’t hit the spot.
Maybe to achieve what Americans have achieved, a “win or nothing” mentality is necessary. Maybe that’s the price you pay for excellence. In the “Big Picture”, maybe it’s worth it.
But it sure takes the fun out of competing.
By the way, when I lost after being nominated for an Emmy. It didn’t feel like an honor just to be nominated.
Am I, perhaps, becoming an American?
(Or was I secretly one all the time?)