Many on the internet are celebrating wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock’s exuberant, patriotic interview after winning Olympic gold — a contrast to some athletes’ messages that predated even the opening ceremony.
Before the Olympic Games in Tokyo commenced, the debate over patriotism-versus-protest had already started. After placing third in a qualifying event in Eugene, Oregon, hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the U.S. flag and placed a shirt (reading “Activist Athlete”) over her head during the national anthem. Her purpose, she later explained, was to represent those “who died to systemic racism.”
The backlash was swift. An editorial in the Washington Examiner called for Berry’s expulsion from Team USA: “If an athlete literally representing the United States of America will not stand respectfully for the U.S. flag and anthem, the athlete can find another country that doesn’t offend them as much,” the editorial board wrote. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, claimed that the “bare-minimum requirement” for competing in the Olympic games should be to “believe in the country you’re representing.” Gerard Baker, editor-at-large of the Wall Street Journal, used Berry as an anecdote to attack progressivism, and said that such theatrics would land Chinese athletes in a reeducation camp.
When initial TV ratings for the 2021 Olympics began to trickle out, Fox News was quick to blame “woke” protests for NBC’s “worse-case scenario.” To an extent, such a framing has credibility; NBC’s TV audience for Tokyo 2021 was 45% smaller than the 2016 games in Rio. For prime time, the ratings are even lower; NBC saw ratings down 51%.
A July poll from Monmouth University found that 36% of Americans said they had less interest in this year’s Olympics than in past years, and a third (34%) of that group point to politics as the reason why, more than any other reason. “I don’t want to see virtue signaling. Be a proud American,” one New Jersey woman told the researchers. “I believe woke politics have gotten into every aspect of athletics, and that includes the Olympics,” another said.
The athletes who used the Olympics — the world’s most visible athletic stage — as a platform for activism pointed to their message as the justification. “My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,” Berry said. And after Berry raised her fist in protest on the podium at the Pan Olympic Games in 2019, her father — and Iraq War veteran — defended her action: “For her to do that on the podium is more American than anything, if you ask me,” he said. “Because that’s what our country is founded on: freedom of expression, freedom of speech.”
But the noise surrounding athletes who chose to protest — met with outrage by some, and support from others — largely overshadowed the several athletes who expressed appreciation for their country, drew attention to other issues, or otherwise redefined ‘patriotism’ during the Games.
Mensah-Stock, after becoming the first Black U.S. woman to win Olympic gold in wrestling and the second U.S. woman overall, gave heartfelt praise to her country in an interview after winning.
“That American flag around your shoulders looks pretty good,” a reporter asked Mensah-Stock. “How does that feel, to represent your country like this?”
“It feels amazing,” she responded. “I love representing the U.S. I freaking love living there. I love it, and I’m so happy I get to represent U-S-A!”
It was later reported that Mensah-Stock will use the prize money from her victory to help her mother’s “dream come true” by buying her a food truck.
Swimmer Katie Ledecky, who followed up a fifth-place performance in the 200-meter freestyle by winning gold in the 1,500 on the same day, took advantage of an opportunity to draw attention to larger issues.
“I think people maybe feel bad for me that I’m not winning everything, but I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world where people are truly suffering,” Ledecky told reporters shortly after winning the first-ever women’s 1,500 race. “I’m just proud to bring home a gold medal to Team USA.”
Others suggest that patriotism demands more than honoring the flag or pledging allegiance. USA Today sports reporter Analis Bailey recently wrote that “true patriotism” is “supporting the Black women of the Olympics,” including Allyson Felix, whose 11th medal made her the most decorated women in track and field of all time.
Felix, 35, did not expect to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. In 2018, her sponsor, Nike, threatened to cut her endorsement by up to 70%, because Felix was pregnant and chose to become a mother. Felix walked away from her deal with Nike and signed with Athleta.
In Tokyo, with her 2-year-old daughter watching from Los Angeles, Felix medaled in multiple events, in what were her final Olympic Games.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been the fastest — I’ve never had the world records — but I’ve tried my best with what I have, with character and integrity,” Felix said. “And I think that’s all we want for women in the future. That’s what I want for my daughter.”