Five-ring Circus

If Al-Qaida Had a Curling Team …

Why America stopped caring about international sports competitions.

In 2001, Slate’s David Plotz made a compelling case that the Winter Olympics are embarrassing on an aesthetic and competitive level. The “sports” in the Winter Games are stupid, they’re boring to watch on television, and, to add insult to ennui, Americans mostly suck at them.

There’s a greater challenge for reluctant winter sports fans, though: America’s dominance in global affairs. The Olympics have become so politically irrelevant in recent years that it is easy to forget that the Games once had a dramatic geopolitical backdrop. Americans cared about 1980’s “Miracle on Ice” because it was preceded by decades of fierce athletic and diplomatic competition with the Soviet Union. Even before the Cold War, Jesse Owens’ victories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics struck a blow against Nazism.

Since defeating our 20th-century enemies, we’ve cultivated an indifference to international sports. This is the culmination of every nationalist’s desire—the freedom to ignore the rest of the world. Sept. 11 was supposed to snap us out of that particular fugue. The attacks even spawned a rallying cry—”Let’s Roll!”—that quickly devolved into a locker-room slogan for the likes of Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden.

But in the Olympics, who are we supposed to roll against? Sure, there’s the “axis of evil,” but the painful truth is that evil countries aren’t as good at sports as they used to be. Or, at least any of the sports that we care about—good luck finding a decent Iranian baseball team.

Unfortunately for Olympics fans, our main geopolitical rivals aren’t seeking the kind of international legitimacy that comes from a national sports program. Iran and North Korea are sending skeletal squads to Turin that aren’t expected to contend for medals. The Soviet Union and its satellite states used global competition to demonstrate the superiority of Communist society. Our current enemies have diminished aspirations. The investments they make are meant to further regional domination and secure survival against the hostile Western world. These goals are not achieved by becoming a force in international hockey.

With no nation-state rivals worth getting worked up about, we’re left with countryless evildoers. And, as Bob Costas remarked to Time in 2004, “It’s not like al-Qaida is fielding a gymnastics squad.” The fact that al-Qaida has been slow to organize an Olympic movement should be a cause of great embarrassment to them. From their training videos they seem pretty adept at running on logs and swinging from monkey bars. Surely, they are in curling shape.

Even if al-Qaida did compete in winter sports, rooting against the terrorists wouldn’t be the same as rooting against the Soviets. The Cold War elevated international sports competitions to proxies for our anxieties and fears. But as Joseph Ellis recently pointed out in the New York Times, the war on terror has been conducted against an enemy that has frightened us without challenging our survival in the same fundamental way. Despite efforts by some to elevate this current conflict to World War IV, our rivals have shown an Indianapolis Colts-like inability to live up to the hype.

America’s failure to get excited about the Olympics is yet another thing that separates us from the rest of the world. For other countries, the national team still means something. European nations that fought over land and treasure for centuries now yearn to best each other in sports with equal fervor. And without an empire to comfort them anymore, Austrians have a lot more invested in Hermann Maier’s success than we do in Bode Miller’s.

Of course, it goes without saying that the entireworld would like to kick our star-spangled ass. To rejoin the global sports community, we must come up with someone or something we hate as much as everyone else hates America. Until that happens, we will suffer the fate of all empires. Our victories will no longer thrill us, and we will not recognize our defeats as our own.