Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

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Jayne: Olympic athletes a melting pot

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

It used to seem so simple. Or at least it was presented in simplistic terms.

The Olympics were a proxy battle in the Cold War, with American capitalism and freedom pitted against the godless communism of the Soviet Union. Exactly how Mark Spitz winning a boatload of gold medals in the pool proved the superiority of capitalism was never fully explained, but when you are a 6-year-old American it seems to make sense.

In other words, the Olympics have always been politicized, despite the better nature of our angels and the attention the Games bring to our shared humanity. Social and diplomatic issues are unavoidable when you bring some 11,000 athletes and 200 countries together on the world stage in a quest for dominance.

Yet, as we grow older and our view of the world grows more complex, the individual stories of the Games increase in value. We can witness the Olympics as a collectivist battle of the United States vs. the world, yet that collectivism is comprised of many disparate parts.

Take Eddie Alvarez, a member of the American baseball team. He happened to win a silver medal in short track speedskating at the 2014 Winter Olympics, and now is the third American to medal at both the Winter and Summer Games. Alvarez was selected by fellow Team USA members to be one of two flag-bearers for the United States during the Opening Ceremony.

And why not? In addition to his cross-seasonal athletic prowess, Alvarez has a compelling story. He is the son of Cuban immigrants and said, “Being a first-generation Cuban American, my story represents the American Dream.”

Or take Athing Mu. She dominated the women’s 800-meter run, capturing gold at the age of 19. Her parents emigrated from Sudan before she was born, and she grew up in New Jersey.

Or take Jay Litherland, who grew up in Georgia as the son of a father from New Zealand and a mother from Japan and won a silver medal in swimming. Or Delilah Muhammad, a Muslim from New Jersey who ran the second-fastest women’s 400-meter hurdles race in history — and had the misfortune of seeing the fastest come in the same race. Or Yul Moldauer, who was adopted from South Korea as an infant and represented the U.S. in men’s gymnastics.

There are more. Many more. Because the U.S. Olympic team tends to reflect the best of the United States, and that always includes a lot of immigrants. American Dream, indeed.

You see, for every world-class American athlete who is an immigrant or the child of immigrants, there are hundreds or thousands of doctors and lawyers and teachers and journalists and farm workers and baristas who can trace their recent heritage to another country. All of which points out the nonsense of our immigration policy.

Yes, we must have secure borders. Despite the rhetoric from the far-right, nobody with a modicum of authority or common sense supports open borders. But with the rise of white nationalists in this country, it is essential to point out the absurdity of their philosophy and xenophobia. As far as we know, no member of the Proud Boys has brought as much glory to the United States as an Olympic medalist.

It also is essential to point out how Congress has spent many years dropping the baton on immigration policy.

Take Luis Grijalva, who came to the United States with his family at the age of 1 and has remained here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. He competes for his parents’ homeland of Guatemala and became the first runner representing a Central American country to reach the finals of the men’s 5,000 meters.

Grijalva needed an expedited re-entry permit before leaving for Tokyo. That required help from an immigration lawyer and two members of Congress as well as dispensation from immigration officials – just to ensure he could return to the only country he has ever known.

Indeed, politics are inescapable in the Olympics. But it seems they could be a little more simplistic.