While China opened the ceremonies with an intimidating legion of stern and precision-perfect drummers, the American athletes, resplendent though they were in Ralph Lauren, couldn't seem to put down their cellphones or spit out their gum. During the Games, perspiration-free Chinese officials have kept their distance and defined "dressed down" as no jacket, while President Bush cavorted short-sleeved and sweaty with the women's beach volleyball team. The Chinese yanked a 7-year-old songbird out of the limelight,O,5944370.stc because her teeth weren't perfect, but Americans have swooned at mini-biopics designed to celebrate our stars' endearing imperfections, like demi-god Michael Phelps shoveling down sugary cereal and waking up next to his snoring bulldog.
No one captured the American mood better than Matt Lauer, who decided to conduct his interviews for the "Today" show wearing loafers without socks (a fashion statement he also made during his Britney Spears interview). These Olympics, he seemed to say, are less a battle of political wills than establishing a dominant national personality. Which attitude will rule the world in coming decades -- the uptight or the laid-back?
Or more succinctly: It's 97 degrees, dude, why would anyone wear socks?
At times, it has seemed as if the Americans were making a concerted effort to appear super-casual despite being at an event not known for casualness. Considering the host country, this makes perfect sense. The Chinese have always intimidated us; let's just say it out loud. Bound by rules and traditions beyond our mere 2-century-old comprehension, they make even the British look sloppily emotive.
And certainly they have a recent history of valuing the things most Americans do not: conformity, homogeneousness, atheism, shame. The Mao jackets, the one-child policy, the political and religious repression -- these things add up, creating an impression that is difficult to dispel, even with a multibillion-dollar, embrace-the-world Olympics. Still, there's no denying that Chinese culture is impressive in a way American culture is not -- they invented paper, for gosh sake, and then there's that Wall.
Trying too hard?
As the Canadians, who will be hosting the next Winter Olympics, were quick to point out, no one puts on a show like the Chinese. (So don't expect a Frank Gehry ice skating rink any time soon in Vancouver.) After years of self-imposed isolation, the Chinese have more to prove, of course, and also the government doesn't blink at spending $2 billion on what is essentially PR, while many Chinese, as we were reminded several times by the good folks at NBC, live on dollars a day.
The glitter on the female gymnasts, the CGI enhancement of the opening ceremony fireworks, the high-wattage venues such as the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, the hordes of neat and relentlessly helpful volunteers -- as the commentary spooled out, it really did start to feel like the Chinese were perhaps trying too hard.
There is nothing that Americans revile more than looking as if you're trying too hard, which reeks of social climbing and, well, effort. Which may explain some of our fashion choices, reporting live from Beijing. After all this hype about the international significance, only Bob Costas seems to think it's important to wear a suit (and, apparently, to CGI his hair).
Other American newscasters, possibly taking a cue from Lauer, have been consistently Friday casual, with polos on the men and sleeveless tops and dresses for the women. (In previous years, it would have been pointless to mention the iconic untidiness of sportswriters, though with so many now broadcasting through podcasts, one has to wonder: Would it kill them to tuck in their shirts?)
It has played a bit strange, considering how much the U.S. prides itself on being obsessed with appearance, regularly pointing out our cosmetic surgery rates and the narcissistic vagaries of the entertainment industry. Condemnation of things like the fake fireworks or the decision to have 9-year-old Lin Miaoke lip-sync because "the child on camera should be flawless in image" seemed a bit petty coming from the nation that gave the world "The Hills."
'I' over 'we'
But we've never enjoyed our perfection perfect, to which the tabloids can certainly attest, preferring to view even our most astonishing athletes in the context of some hardscrabble tale or another. The sob factor of Olympic coverage by the American networks seems to make their victories sweeter, their defeats more poignant. More important, it makes these men and women, with their chiseled bodies and almost supernatural abilities, seem more human. Why shouldn't a gold-medal-winning beach-volleyball player offer the president her rump for a slap? We like our heroes fun and sassy, even when they're dissing an opponent, as defeated tennis player James Blake did.
That is where the personal and the political met in this year's Olympics. The U.S. may be a team, just as it is a nation, but, for better or worse, we celebrate the individual over the institution every time. This isn't always pretty -- when the men's swim team won the 400-meter relay, praise for Jason Lezak's amazing final lap almost immediately gave way to what the win would mean for Michael Phelps, which was pretty cheesy -- but it is what separates U.S. democracy from the rest of the world. We believe formality equals oppression, that "lock-step" is a pejorative, that ties are the yoke of conformity, that tank tops are the summer equivalent of blouses and that people who don't scream and cry when the situation warrants it will get ulcers and die of heart attacks.
Then again, we also believe, or many of us do, in federal air-quality regulations and the freedom to assemble. Watching this year's Olympics unfold without a visible political hitch under a Mordor-like haze of smog, it was hard not to root for our version of casual after all. Matt looked pretty cute without the socks, but seriously, during the walk of nations, the gum has got to go.
This is the Olympics, after all.