The Beijing Olympic Games have replayed not only the international political and cultural story of our generation, but the ultimate, age-old story of heaven and earth themselves.
The top three medal-winning countries stand in fascinating relation to one another. Russia, led by Soviet throwback Vladimir Putin who is even now in the process of a hostile occupation of independent Georgia: 36 medals.
China, led by an old-world Communist Politburo which systematically abuses the basic human rights of its people while attempting to project an image of justice and prosperity to the world: 67 medals.
United States, far from perfect but still a beacon of liberty, justice, strength, and real human rights for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the tempest-tossed of the earth, and with one-seventh the population of China: 72 medals.
No mere jingoism or Olympic-week enthusiasm, this synopsis reveals that these Beijing Games are what every Olympic replay is: a microcosm of both the recent and ancient past that produced the athletes and international relations involved in them.
In our case, the recent past is the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries. Adolf Hitler attempted to use the 1936 Berlin Games in much the same way China is attempting to use the 2008 Beijing Games: as a demonstration and tour de force of his nation's political, social, and economic advancement, and thereby of his own ideology. Unlike China, he also intended to use the games to display German athletes' physical prowess and genetic superiority over people groups such as ethnic Africans.
The delicious irony was not lost on the world, least of all the United States - my mother told me the story with relish in the suburbs of American Georgia when I was but a lad - when James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens, grandson of a slave and son of a sharecropper, collected four gold medals in track and field events in Berlin while Hitler watched: the 100m dash, the long jump, the 200m dash, and the 4x100m relay. This feat would not be repeated until another American, Carl Lewis, did it in the 2004 Games in Los Angeles, long after Hitler had been swept from the world stage in due ignominy.
Hitler, in the stands on the first day of the Owens events, came down to congratulate German event winners but declined to congratulate any others, including Owens. Owens responded with the same kind of grace American athletes have demonstrated at the 2008 games: "I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany."
Even at home, two Democratic Party presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, neither invited Owens to the White House nor bestowed on him any honors in the wake of his accomplishment. Owens would have to wait for his proper national recognition until the election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, who heralded Owens as an "ambassador of sports."
Yet while Stalin was enslaving and slaughtering his own countrymen and Hitler was on the verge of enslaving all of Europe, America had shed its own sons' blood to abolish domestic slavery, and despite remaining cultural prejudice at home the descendants of her former slaves had now risen to international acclaim. Nine years after the Owens games the United States would be the main power responsible for defeating Hitler, and for holding Stalin and his ideological heirs in check for another half century until they could be decisely defeated without firing a shot in direct warfare, under the steadfast American leadership of a man for whom, when he died a mere four years ago, Lady Margaret Thatcher suggested that "all the trumpets sounded on the other side," Ronald Reagan.
There is a litany of American Olympic stories as long as the litany of the general international triumphs of the United States. The unlikely conquest by the U.S. national hockey team of the heavily favored Soviet team in 1980 at Lake Placid matches the unlikely conquest of the United States of the technology, logistics, national determination, and financial investment required to put a starred and striped flag - the only such flag to this day - on the moon, or a scientific lander - the only such lander - on the distant planet of Mars, with plans for a manned mission to Mars to come in the near future.
There is the 1972 collection of seven gold medals - an Olympic record until another American surpassed him in 2008 - by swimmer Mark Spitz, or the repeated domination of both springboard and tower diving events by Greg Louganis between 1980 and 1988, to match the American invention of the telephone, the electric light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, the transistor, the Internet, satellite navigation, and many more core technologies that define what it means to live anywhere on earth in the 21st century.
Louganis was of Samoan and Swedish descent and was raised by Greek-American adoptive parents in California. Like Albert Einstein and the other German scientists who fled Hitler's Germany following World War II to establish nuclear technology in the United States, Louganis' adoptive ancestors came to America to be free and to give their descendants the opportunity to prosper.
From every corner of the world during the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, they came to America. They replayed, wittingly or not, the coming of the Mayflower and the desire of its passengers to build a nation that was a lighthouse. Even beyond the immigration of Louganis' adoptive family, the symptoms of this mass migration to the land of the free are everywhere to be seen in every Olympic Games, and 2008 is no exception.
The personal coach of lead American women's gymnast Shawn Johnson is Liang Chow, who once competed on the Chinese national gymnastics team then came to America in 1990 to study and coach at the University of Iowa. Johnson is from west Des Moines. The father of American men's gymnast Alexander Artemev is Vladimir Artemev, the former Soviet all-around world gymnastics champion in 1984 before he came to America in 1994 when Alexander was 9. Both became American citizens in 2002.
One searches the Russian and Chinese Olympic teams in vain for any sign of an American who migrated to those countries to achieve athletic greatness or any other kind of greatness not offered in better timber in his native land.
The greatest athletes competing for other nations at the 2008 games, if they have not migrated permanently to the United States, have come to the U.S. to train, compete, and to get an education. Premier Chinese basketball player Yao Ming plays professionally in the American National Basketball Association (NBA), as do Spain's Pao Gasol, Germany's Dirk Nowitzki, Argentina's Manu Ginobili, and every other international basketball great.
The University of Auburn swimming program alone boasts members from Australia, Brazil, Estonia, Denmark, France, Croatia, and Trinidad and Tobago. Arizona State University boasts athletes from Brazil, Canada, Finland, Italy, Great Britain, Hungary, Israel, Kuwait, and Sweden. At the University of Alabama, swimmers from Ecuador share the pool with ones from Greece, Kazakhstan, Romania, Hungary, and South Africa. In swimming as in so many other international sports, the road to Olympic glory for one's home country usually passes through an American league or university.
They not only came to America to live free, but they came to bring glory back to the land of their ethnic heritage. They came, they worked, they learned, they trained, they sent money home, and with their help America not only mounted athletic conquests to match her economic, social, political, and military conquests - military not in aggression against free, independent states like Putin in Georgia, but military in defense of free, independent states, like Eisenhower in Normandy or Reagan in Nicaragua or Bush in Iraq - and in the process America became a blessing to the nations.
Her 23-year-olds become Olympic legends by winning more gold medals than any other Olympian in history. Her 41-year-old mothers become Olympic legends by winning medals two years after giving birth at the age of 39. Games of size and speed such as basketball are not simply won but dominated by the United States, and her basketball players are celebrated around the world as icons of athletic genius.
Her athletes, in turn, educate the world on why it is at least as cool to love the United States as it is for anyone else to love his or her country, despite widespread international media and political prejudice to the contrary, a prejudice born of too great a sympathy for Russian and Chinese visions of political wisdom. Kobe Bryant, American basketball great, in an interview with NBC's Chris Collinsworth, said a few days ago that when he first received his Team USA basketball jersey he laid it on the bed and "just stared at it." This exchange followed between Collinsworth and Bryant:
Collinsworth: "Where does the patriotism come from inside of you? Historically, what is it?"
Bryant: "Well, you know it's just our country, it's... we believe is the greatest country in the world. It has given us so many great opportunities, and it's just a sense of pride that you have; that you say 'You know what? Our country is the best!'"
Collinsworth: "Is that a 'cool' thing to say, in this day and age? That you love your country, and that you're fighting for the red, white and blue? It seems sort of like a day gone by."
Kobe: "No, it's a cool thing for me to say. I feel great about it, and I'm not ashamed to say it. I mean, this is a tremendous honor."
Bryant may not understand exactly where American greatness comes from, or how the exceptional opportunities he rightly appreciates first developed, but like so many normal, everyday Americans from Bryant's Los Angeles to Shawn Johnson's Des Moines to Michael Phelps' Baltimore, he senses at a deep level that the greatness is real and the greatness is unequaled by another nation.
Americans do not compete at the highest levels in every world sport, to be sure, but the 2008 games have shown once again that they compete at the highest levels on a wider and deeper athletic scale, and across a wider range of ethnicities and people groups producing athletes who call themselves Americans, than any other political entity recognized by the world, past or present.
And American athletes accomplish their feats with the same kind of grace, charity, and universal concern for all nations with which President George W. Bush carries and expresses himself, notwithstanding foolish caricatures everywhere to the contrary.
It is as difficult to pinpoint the source of this grace and charity in American athletes as it is for Kobe Bryant to pinpoint the source of his patriotism, but the question leads beyond the immediate history of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries in which the United States has stood at the center of the international epic, back to...
... Plymouth Rock and into the Middle Ages; to the fall of Rome; to the birth and death of Jesus Christ; to the ancient mystery of the Jewish people group that produced both Him and His chief disciple, the Apostle Paul, who compared his efforts to be like Christ to the efforts of an Olympic athlete preparing for his games; and further back still...
...to the vicious world of the ancient Near East out of which the Jews were first called - a world where Everyman was nothing and the king was Everyman, a world of nothing if not one of universal slavery before the Jewish presence illuminated it with the message, the commandments, and the very presence of Yahweh.
The question of grace and charity takes us to these places because the question of grace and charity is, as America has shown the world better than any other nation in the modern era, the real center of history. In the end the Olympic games are only games. They will pass, the glory will fade, the medals will lose their luster, and the records will be broken.
But the presence of grace and charity on the international scene beneath, behind, and in the midst of an unrelenting drive toward victory - the reality of virtue and humility in the face of evil and slight, of national health, endurance, determination, and stability in the face of the rise and fall of international despots, of the promise such national strength represents of a Kingdom yet to be revealed in which grace and charity will find their complete fulfillment and manifestation among every tribe, tongue, and nation - this is the stuff of lasting legends, the story of Earth, and the meaning of the cosmos: that grace and charity, and the God who is their ultimate source, and the peoples who worship that God, become and remain triumphant, though charlatans and derelicts give battle to the end.