This mantra echoes wherever teams compete, from middle school gymnasiums to Olympic stadiums: We’re No. 1! Our tribe is the best! In the Olympics, the medal count gives “the best” a number. The final count from the Tokyo Olympics rates the U.S., with 113, “the best.” With 88, China is second-best. With 71, Russia is third.
The U.S. is also No. 1 in spending for the tools of war, with a “defense” budget more than triple that of No. 2 China, and more than the next seven countries combined. Using the compelling logic that when one has a hammer, every job looks like a nail, history shows that U.S. politicians and defense contractors viewed Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan as nails. We have a helluva hammer, and we wielded it — at horrendous cost in human life and world stability — on things that were not nails.
At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, with Hitler the most prominent spectator, Germany’s 89 medals made it No. 1. With 56, the U.S. was No. 2. Three years later, Germany invaded Poland, beginning the deadliest conflict in human history.
National objectives, war, medal counts, the status and economic benefits of hosting an Olympics; these are big pictures that can’t be ignored. But is that what the Olympics should be about? Or should they be more about small stories told in small pictures? About sportsmanship, respect, and friendship?
There are many such stories, one being Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi — competitors and friends — choosing to share this Olympic’s high jump gold medal rather than participate in a jump off. In 1936, the most dramatic was the friendship between American Jesse Owens, who won four events, and Germany’s Lutz Long. Having befriended Owens at the games, Long, watching Owens foul on several long jump attempts, advised him to change his approach. Owens followed the advice and won gold in the event. Long received silver.
Long served in the German army in World War II, but despite their countries being at war, the two remained friends and corresponded. In his last letter, Long asked Owens to contact his son Karl after the war and tell him “what times were like when we were not separated by war. … Tell him how things can be between men on this earth.” Wounded during the Allied invasion of Sicily, Long died in a British military hospital.
When the war ended, Owens visited Long’s family, telling them, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. … I would melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Lutz Long at that moment.”