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2024 Paris Olympic Games

As France and US face threats from within, we need Olympics more than ever

Mike Freeman

In August of 2016, John Kerry, then the Secretary of State, met with several dozen U.S. athletes at their Olympic training facility in Rio de Janeiro. Kerry wanted to talk to them about something he felt was important: American values.

"Not only are we expecting all of you breaking some records, but we want you to contribute in the great American tradition of the spirit of competition and the values of our country," he told several dozen athletes then. "Break barriers. Find a different way to resolve the differences between us."

The Olympics have long been something the U.S. has utilized as a mechanism of showing not just athletic prowess, but an ideological one. We were the democratic example to the world. We were the ideal pluralistic society. We were that diverse beacon on a hill. That's what Kerry was talking about when he spoke of American values.

Kerry’s speech to the team was less than a decade ago. Not so long before the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. The Olympics, for all of its flaws, for all of its many, many flaws, still retains at least a modicum of a sheen of a unifying force.

America was once that force (for all of our own flaws). We are no longer. Neither is the host nation France. We are both now two longtime democracies fighting off totalitarian threats from within. Both nations for decades helped boost fascism antibodies. Now, we're anti-democratic super spreaders. Former President Donald Trump has vowed not to be a dictator "other than day one."

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance said in a 2023 report that America was "moderately backsliding" on its democracy. "...I fear that we’re now on the precipice of fully turning away from democracy and toward a full embrace of authoritarianism," wrote New York Times columnist Charles Blow. "The country seems thirsty for it; many Americans appear to be inviting it."

The Olympics can do something they maybe haven’t done before. They can remind a superpower that is losing its democracy, and another longtime ally that’s possibly doing the same, what unity and togetherness really looks like.

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This Fourth of July, for maybe the first time in a long time, the United States definitely, and France potentially, needs the Olympics more than the Olympics need us.

Look closely at both nations. The United States Supreme Court basically just Frankensteined a monarchy. Our president has king-like powers now thanks to a stunning decision ruling Presidents are immune from criminal prosecution for official acts.

"The relationship between the President and the people he serves has shifted irrevocably," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent. "In every use of official power, the President is now a king above the law."

France is on the cusp of having its first far-right government since the Nazi occupation in World War II. Anytime you see "Nazis" and "France" in the same sentence (or "Nazis" in any sentence actually), that’s not a good thing.

We’re left in this unusual position where the Olympics can serve as more of an inspirational model than both of our nations at this point in time.

This has happened before. Jesse Owens came from an America where parts of it despised its Black citizens, and in 1936 he traveled to Berlin, to a regime that also hated him. Owens’ four gold medals (and the triumph of other American athletes) disproved Hitler’s lie of Aryan superiority. The Olympics allowed this opportunity.

These Olympics can allow another opportunity now. The Games can show the power of true unity. It’s that unity that terrifies authoritarians who are gaining footholds in places we never believed they would.

Many Americans on the Fourth will do the usual. Eat their hot dogs. Go to the beach. Light fireworks (and subsequently scare dogs). We will celebrate the birth of a nation that is dramatically changing, and transforming so rapidly, that we could one day soon have a king after fighting centuries ago to free ourselves from one.

We've taught the world lessons about democracy and togetherness. Maybe this year the Olympics can return the favor to us.

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