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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—A few months back, Lindsey Vonn ventured the opinion that she was competing in the Olympics not for the pleasure of the President of the United States, but for the honor of her country.
“I hope to represent the people of the United States, not the president,” she said, adding that she would not visit the White House if she were to win in PyeongChang. Her opinion’s a widely-held one — every single poll along the political spectrum shows that at least half of Americans disapprove of the president — but Vonn’s comments were enough to spark the usual flames of partisan controversy. (Yes, yes, Vonn’s critics have the right to speak their mind every bit as much as she does. Let’s keep moving.)
Those flames died down, as they always do, until Vonn arrived in PyeongChang and suffered a bit of a professional setback. Her first outing on the slopes didn’t go so well, and a horde of feverish trolls leaped to pile on her misery. We’re not going to bother quoting them here; most are either bots trying to stir up dissent or six-follower chumps desperate for attention. But the mindset they embody is a growing one, a parochial us-versus-them mentality that’s corroding our national foundation.
Sunday morning, following a downhill practice run, Vonn addressed the burgeoning controversy head-on. “I just ignore the haters,” Vonn said. “I feel sorry for them. There’s so much hate in the world. I just do the best I can to be a good person and stay true to myself. I don’t read [negative comments]. There’s so much negativity on Twitter, especially.”
Vonn conceded that the blowback is making her rethink taking public stances, but only for now. “I like to say a lot, but I feel like right now is not the time,” she said. “I need to focus on my races, and that’s what’s important to me right now. Later on, if I still have a voice, I’d like to express my opinion.”
She emphasized that the legions of Twitter trolls haven’t forced her to rethink her opinions. “I’ve stood firm in my beliefs,” Vonn said. “I haven’t talked about it, but I haven’t backed down, either.”
It’s a shame we’ve come to this, Americans rooting for Americans to fail, but perhaps there’s some good that can come of bringing this fetid, greasy underbelly of the American character to light. Granted, quite a few people get upset when athletes bring politics into the stadium. But especially during the Olympics, that’s a notion as sweetly naïve as leaving teeth under your pillow as an investment strategy. The Olympics’ entire identity is based on politics. If this were purely an athletic competition, we’d have everyone racing in the same uniform (or flat-out naked, like in olden days).
The Olympics’ political foundation makes the Games such a glorious, noteworthy event. Amid all the corruption, all the backbreaking financial burdens, all the deceit and back-room dealing, you get moments like Jesse Owens in 1936, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968, Ibtihaj Muhammad in 2016, or Adam Rippon in 2018 — moments when the Olympic ideal of unity and inclusion doesn’t seem quite so silly and unreachable.
Yes, some Americans want their Olympians as white and straight as a ski jump. Some want them to just shut up and play. But Olympians that reflect the true diversity of America — a meritocracy based on ability rather than historical lineage — well, that’s the real dream. And it’s a dream strong enough to survive some differences of opinion. (If you prefer a country where everyone pledges undying fealty to their leader and critics disappear, I can recommend one about 70 miles away from PyeongChang. They even have their own cheerleaders.)
Look, it’s pretty simple. You certainly have the right to boo athletes. You also have the right to disagree with their political stances. But if you boo athletes because of their beliefs — if you, let’s be clear here, root for American athletes to lose to foreign countries simply because of what they’ve said — well, you surrender any moral high ground. You don’t get to call your political enemies “un-American.” You don’t get to claim that NFL players kneeling during the anthem are “disrespecting America.” You don’t get to call yourself a patriot. Party or country, make your choice.
(Lest there be any doubt, before the Vonn-haters flop into fits of “what about”-ism: yes, this applies in every direction. Gun-control progressives who, hypothetically, booed biathletes for praising the virtues of responsible gun ownership would be every bit as in the wrong.)
Perhaps what’s most ridiculous about all this is that anyone could tag Vonn — who’s wearing red, white, and blue as she competes, almost literally wrapped in the flag — with an “anti-American” label. “I am the most American person you will ever find,” she said. “I’m from Minnesota, I’m from farmland, my family is solid, wholesome people, and I love my country. I love competing for my country. I’m so proud to be here representing the United States. It hurts me when people say that, because it’s not true.”
We’re one nation — a nation of differing, squabbling, vehement opinions, yes, but one nation. It’d be great if some of the loudest among us could remember that.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Team USA hints at bad sportsmanship, bad play by O.A.R. in lopsided loss
• Mikaela Shiffrin pours heart out on social media
• The story behind the famous Olympic escalator stunt
• Ester Ledecka celebrates surprise gold medal with trip to KFC
• Swiss father bikes 10,000 miles to watch son ski in Olympics