by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

MOSCOW — The flags came out. The cheer began. “U-S-A! U-S- A!” In hockey we had done it. On the track we had done it. In the ice rink we had done it. Now it was women’s basketball. The buzzer sounded and Teresa Weatherspoon threw the ball to the ceiling and jumped into a bouncing mob of teammates. The Goodwill Games final was history, and it wasn’t even close; 83-60.

We had done it again.

“Why does beating the Soviets mean so much?” someone asked Anne Donovan, the center on the U.S. team, as she waved an American flag.

“I think it’s international pride,” she said. “That’s what it all comes down to.”

“Why does beating the Soviets mean so much?” someone asked the team’s star, Cheryl Miller, who was wrapped in a flag, a la “Rocky IV.”

“The Soviets have been on top and we were the underdog,” she said. “It’s like good against bad.”

Right. We’re the good and they’re the bad. Except over here. Where they’re the good and we’re the bad. On it goes. The good and the bad.

“Why does beating the Soviets mean so much?” someone asked Kamie Ethridge, the team’s point guard, as she waved to the screaming section of red, white and blue fans.

“They think they’re the best and we think we’re the best,” she said. “We proved it tonight.” Overtones are loud

Well, yes, I suppose they did. You don’t win by 23 points and leave much doubt. The U.S. played great. But it was not an Olympic atmosphere. It was more like a high school state championship. The arena was small and you could hear the coaches yelling in between baskets.

But anytime the U.S. plays the Soviet Union in anything, there are these overtones. So when the game ended, the American reporters were scurrying around for statistics. How long since the Soviets had lost? When was the last time they lost in Moscow? How good a story was this?

If we heard Soviet reporters salivating over such facts when America lost, we’d mumble under our breath. “Propaganda,” we’d say.

For us, it’s OK.

“Why does beating the Soviets mean so much?” someone asked Teresa Edwards, the team’s other starting guard.

“They think they’re tops; we think we’re tops,” she said. “We came to prove ourselves.”

This is not new. Is it new? In politics it got cold in the ’50s. In basketball it got cold in 1972, when the U.S. men lost to the Soviets in the last second of the Olympic final. Don’t you remember that? It was controversial. It was a tinder box. They cheated, we said. We’ll show them.

Since then almost every showdown has been a blood feud. In any sport. When the Soviets win, it’s a blow for communism. When the U.S. wins, it’s a blow against it.

“Why does beating the Soviets mean so much?” someone asked Cynthia Cooper.
“When you play the USSR, you don’t want to be second,” she said. “You want to make sure you’re No. 1.” U.S. causing ill will?

Now, don’t take this the wrong way. But if I were Russian, Japanese or Brazilian I think I’d be pretty tired of seeing American athletes wrapped in their flag, waving a “We’re No. 1” finger at every television camera in sight. What’s Russian for “Rubbing it in?”

Yes, we live in a flag decade. A patriotic decade. We send movie-screen Rambos to save movie-screen POWs, and movie-screen boxers to beat up movie-screen Soviets. We sing songs about being born in America; we have auto commercials that use it as a slogan.

But there’s a difference between movies and real life. These are called the Goodwill Games. But in four days here I’ve heard accusations of cheating, accusations of blood-doping. I’ve heard Carl Lewis say he’d charter a plane if it would get him out a day sooner, and Steve Scott say he’s not surprised by “asinine” behavior from the Soviets.

So where’s the Goodwill? Not on their side, we say. But if we thought about it, we might realize that draping ourselves in the flag and screaming
“U-S-A!” doesn’t help matters much either.

We don’t think. We just do.

And we had done it again.

“Do you remember that 1972 men’s Olympic game?” someone asked Teresa Weatherspoon as she smiled broadly, with her new gold medal around her neck.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I think that’s where a lot of this American-Russian rivalry started. I remember watching it. It had a big effect on me. It was very inspirational.”

“How old were you then?” someone asked.

“I was six,” she said.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!