August, 2004

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Of Hamm-ish Gold, Team USA, Bushism, and Anti-Americanism

paul_hamm.jpgAmidst interviewing work that just started a fortnight ago for the fourty-something players and developers I’m speaking to again in my study, I’d been watching the events in the Athens Olympics. While the two channels often broadcast events that were of more interest to the Australians (they sent a huge swimming team for instance) and not unreasonably so, I nonetheless had the opportunity to watch on TV in the background a large range of events while I worked.

Several news columnists have commented that Athens 2004 has been the ugliest Olympics competition ever, and I’m inclined to agree. Two events particularly stick in my mind which are more closely related than an initial look would suggest. I’m not talking about doping – I’m talking about Paul Hamm’s Gold medal, Team USA; and how it relates to George Bush and the coming Presidential Election, and Anti-Americanism.

Firstly, for those of us who didn’t follow the gymnastics opera which started small and reached ridiculous heights: in the Men’s Gymnastics All Round competition, a mistake made by three judges resulted in the Korean gymnast getting a lower score than he should have, and led to his receiving the Bronze medal. The Gold went to American gymnast, Paul Hamm, in a very admirable turnaround after an unfortunate slip in the vault station sent him crashing into the judges. As it turned out, the Korean delegation filed their protest well after the event. As the rules stated that protests must be filed well before that for it to have validity, there began the problems. Paul Hamm had been given the Gold already, and the Koreans got real mad.

At the risk of upsetting some of my Korean students, I believe no one can or should pressure or force Hamm to give up his medal. Subjective assessment is part of gymnastics, and while there is now argument on whether subjectively judged sports like gymnastics should be part of the Olympics aside more objectively judged sports like Basketball, if you’re incorrectly judged, that’s just part of what a human-based system is like. It’s sad, but it happens; that’s why it’s important to make timely protests, not well after the fact.

You can’t play football, and when the 90 minutes are done, the score is 2-1 and the trophy given to the other guy, you return the next day and insist the penalty shouldn’t have been given and you want the trophy instead. Retroactive assessment doesn’t work when the event’s all over. Understandably, the Koreans were angry, and more than a few muttered angrily that it was imperialist America all over again.

Secondly, there was the painfully disturbing anti-Americanism throughout the tournament. I’m not a continual follower of the NBA, and the team of basketballers in Team USA is the weakest since the Dream Team of Barcelona 1992. But whenever the Americans played, I was disturbed at the amount of jeering, cat calling, whistling and booing… coming from the host country, the Greeks. What’s it with these people? They have guests in their country, and this is the kind of hospitality they muster?

Elsewhere, the 200m men’s sprint was held up for 10 minutes by a booing crowd, and it resulted in two false starts by the nervous runners even. And the loudest jeers came when the three American runners were announced. Nevermind that the jeers perhaps inspired the three Americans – because they won Gold, Silver, and Bronze respectively. But seeing the booing crowd was disturbing.

The same sentiment I saw in discussion rooms that I participated in. I must had been very alone in my supporting the American Basketball team, because everyone else wanted them to lose. Not just Larry Brown and his group of relatively inexperienced players, but in every sport, apart from perhaps just Michael Phelps’ swimming events, the Singaporeans in these rooms were screaming for Americans to lose.

Apparently, the seeding dislike for big and bad America isn’t Singaporean but global. And it stems not so much from people hating the Americans. Instead, they hate the way the war has gone on in Iraq, the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the abuse of the Iraq prisoners, and maybe just even Microsoft Windows XP’s buggy SP2. And the icon in which all this hatred is focused upon is George Bush Jr. It’s depressing refrain is read everywhere – one Greek taxidriver said, “I don’t hate Americans, but I hate George Bush!”

It really brings to mind what Kerry – if I remember right – said early on. That many politicians outside America would rather not see Bush return to a second term as President. And this isn’t just the view of the old, the wise and the ruling elite. A good friend from Missouri, Matt, says “it’s imperative we get him (Bush) the f*** out of dodge.” Even my Godmums is a Kerry supporter and says Bush has done more damage to the American image than any other US president she can think of.

I wonder am I just too sympathetic of Bush.

Perhaps it’s that I respect the Americans and the United States more than many of my Singaporean peers. And this I believe has stemmed from my recognition of their sacrifices and effort rendered in the first and second world wars. Without the Americans, I can’t imagine for a moment what life would be like under Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany on the other side of the world. But clearly, the good will that has been fostered and nurtured in my parents’ generation, some of which rubbed up on me as I grew up with through my reading of world history, has worn thin.

I guess it’s just a sad state of affairs. For many Singaporeans my age, it has become fashionable to hate the big, bad, bullying United States of America. It’s one thing for Americans to dislike Bush – it’s their country and their President. But it’s something else for foreigners to detest the country at large. Given the way things are, as I expressed to Matt, as much as I am still sure that the incumbent American President is of correct moral stock even if he’s been linked to all kinds of conspiracies courtesy of Michael Moore and that he makes more speech fumbles than he should as President, perhaps the world will indeed be more relieved, if not happier, if Kerry wins.

Even then, I don’t expect US foreign policy to change substantially with Kerry. The political machine is less agile than that, but at least it gives the other people around the world a new face. There will be some who will continue to hate America, but for the many whose dislike is predicated more on the individual than the country, perhaps it will improve things, and that’s my hope.

And given the sorry state of world opinion, a little hope is better than none.