And finally, after all of that, I can turn towards the United States and start moving towards my point. Over the last 2 weeks or so I bored you to death with Kenyan distance running dominance, talked about UK track cycling, the Soviet sports machine, East Germany, Bulgarian Ol’ing, Australian swimming and finally covered the current Chinese sports machine in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 8 yesterday.
If you got anything from my endless repetition I hope it’s this: consistent success or outright dominance in sport is universally predicated on a complex interplay of factors ranging from sociocultural, political, economic, physiological, etc. You need the numbers of athletes going into the sport which means having facilities and availability, along with coaching, the athletes need support, incentives to go into the sport and put themselves through the training, etc. etc. You simply can’t speak of one factor in isolation without considering the others.
And while the details differed between all of those groups, invariably within the specific context of each one each of those factors (along with others I’m sure I ignored) was present in one form or another. Take any one factor away and the whole thing tends to collapse. Bulgaria’s incessant politicking, the dissolution of the GDR, as soon as one aspect of the overall system went away, the rest of the system collapsed upon itself. But it’s ultimately the synergistic whole that is relevant.
The only time that a single solitary factor is relevant is if it’s the ONLY one missing in the equation; in that case shoring up that one limiter might be sufficient to fix the ‘problem’. At least assuming it can be fixed easily. That is, when the entire rest of the infrastructure is there but only that one thing is missing (as might have been argued to be the case for UK Track cycling where it was the infusion of huge amounts of money that got the ball rolling).
As a final point, if there’s anything else I’ve gotten across is that you simply can’t consider the issue of sporting dominance (in general or when looking at a specific sport) outside of the specific cultural (and geographic and the rest) issues. The entire Soviet approach came out of the sociocultural environment in which it developed as did the GDR’s and all of the rest.
Which means that in turning my eye to the US and examining the issue of our success (or lack thereof) in Olympic lifting, it’s equally important to address those same issues. Location/geography (like most Americans I can almost find my home state on a map), culture, etc. That will lead into a discussion of sports in general and finally allow me to look at Olympic lifting in specific.
One quick pedantic note in a failed attempt to eliminate some nitpickery: technically America (or the Americas) refers to more than just the USA. South America and Canada (America, Jr.) are all technically part of America. But here realize that I will be using the term America to refer to the United States of America (USA#1) and nothing else. It’s just less tedious to alternate than typing USA all the time.
Oh yeah, for people who don’t detect sarcasm real well, you’ll see some of my personal in-jokes about USA#1 throughout this and the next two pieces. Just realize that it’s (mostly) a joke I’m making to make the point about how Americans feel about America (while being absolutely true).
Invariably discussions of this type tend to hit close to home for a lot of people. For whatever reason, folks (especially if they exist outside of what I’m going to describe) disagree, don’t want to hear it or don’t want to believe it. They forget that they are often in the small minority, that is they are the exception to what I’m going to say (some of which will not be kind).
Make no mistake, I say what I’m going to say as an American; the opinions I’m going to express aren’t necessarily ones that thrill me and I often wish they weren’t true. I also want a flying unicorn that poops gold. Because how I want the world (or America) to be and how it is are generally not the same. Most people simply confuse the two ideas: they conflate how they want the world to be with how it actually is and can’t make the distinction.
As well, to save space, time, energy and endless repetition, assume that just about every sentence I’m going to write about this topic starts with a qualifier of ‘On average’ or ‘In general’ or ‘On the whole’. It would get tiresome to keep typing it and I’m the first to recognize that there are exceptions to everything I’m going to write. And it’s always the folks in that small percentage of exceptions that takes the most umbrage at generalities. Because it doesn’t apply to them and their select group of friends.
But as I’m fond of saying “Exceptions to a generality don’t disprove a generality” and the folks who typically get pissy over this usually don’t realize that they aren’t the in the majority when they debate it. Essentially their argument amounts to “Well when I and my 6 highly educated upper middle class white friends go to see the newest Almodovar movie before drinking imported Bolovian coffee at the poetry jam and then going home to blog about our superior Paleo lifestyle…well, hmph, we certainly don’t think this way. And since your comments don’t apply to us, clearly they don’t apply to anyone. Pass the organic gouda, please.”
And they’re absolutely right in that I’m not talking about them. And absolutely wrong in thinking that their exceedingly limited experience/group of friends/lifestyle is in any way indicative of anything approximating the majority in this country. Because in what I’m about to say, I’m not talking about foreign film watching, gourmet food eating folks with an appreciation for obscure and nuanced activities like rhythmic gymnastics, dog shows, and polo or movies where elephants spew blood out of their trunk and that has some deep meaning. They aren’t the majority in the US and they never will be even if they can’t seem to come to terms with it.
Because when you’re talking about something like sports in the United States (which is both big business and a way of life), you’re not talking about the niches, the exceptions, the tiny percentages. You are talking about the majority because it’s the majority that watch the sports and pay money for tickets, merchandise, etc. to those sports. Hence, it’s towards that majority that my comments are aimed. Which means that to understand sports in this country, you have to understand the majority. And to understand that, you have to understand America (#1).
The United States, like the USSR of old, is an absolutely massive landmass and that’s just including the continuous 48 states. Throw in Alaska, Hawaii and a couple of others we claim are our own and it’s just a monstrous amount of land under a single flag. As a single country, it spans an incredible amount of space and this, of course, has as number of consequences.
First and foremost, I would argue that America contains within it perhaps the most variable number of different climate/weather systems of any country on the planet. Examples follow:
Head to the Northeast and you get brutal winters alternated with miserable summers. Head south to Florida and it’s perpetual summer even if it gets hot enough to melt your dashboard. Back to the midwest of Wisconsin and Minnesota and you have an area that is frozen roughly 14 months out of the year. Even if that’s impossible. There’s an old joke that “The Vikings left their homeland, traveled across land and water, to arrive in America, finally settling in Minnesota, a place just as cold and miserable as the one that they’d just left.” Having water skiied in Minnesota in October, it’s no joke.
The midwest is it’s own flat empty expanse of nothing (about the only thing to do there is meth), there are the high-altitude mountains of Colorado and Utah, the desert of Nevada, the dunes of New Mexico, the swampland in Louisiana and parts of Florida. Over to California and you see another perpetually warm weather environment. Except for the snowy peaks of Big Bear and Mammoth a mere 5 hours away.
If you’re willing to get up early and hustle you can snow ski in the morning and be back on the beach in LA by afternoon during certain parts off the year; there aren’t many places in the world you can find that that I know of. Head North to Oregon and it rains about 400 days a year. Go too far north and you’re in Canada and you need to turn around and come back to civilization.
But ultimately, you name just about ecosystem or climate and the US contains it one way or the other. From swamps to desert to temperate climes to near frozen tundra, the US contains it all. And that includes volcanoes because of Hawaii and the arctic because of Alaska (inhabited by wolves, the Inuit and mentally deficient female politicians).
If nothing else this may explain why, on the whole, America tends to generate athletes in so many different sports compared to the many countries that are locked into a single ecosystem or another. Norway and Sweden and their ilk are predominantly winter sports folks, not a lot of summer athletes coming out of those because it’s tough to sprint in the snow. Nor a lot of winter athletes from Jamaica (the bobsled team notwithstanding) or Kenya.
The dominant climate plays a big role in what sport you can or will pursue. The US, we’ve got it all, and there’s almost no sport that can’t, in premise, be pursued here. It helps that you’re free to move about the country if you want a different climate; you go where the sport or lifestyle you want is.
An additional factor that I only bring up here for the sake of something I’m going to write about later is the structure of American cities. Because while New England is structured quite a bit like the Motherland (i.e. England), the rest of the country is not. As you move further south or west, you can almost track the development of the US as the cities (especially those in the warmer areas of the country) moves towards urban sprawl.
You start to see pretty much nothing but big blocks of concrete where it looks like someone used a waffle iron to set out a perfect grid. Also keep in mind that the connecting roads between major cities are freeways and interstates, made for high volume high velocity traffic. Because America is nothing if not a car country and this is just how we roll. I know this seems irrelevant as all hell, it’s really just background for one specific point I’m going to make in a few days and it belongs here.
Ok, this is where I’m going to piss some folks off, mainly the literati who refuse to accept what I’m going to say. Because I am going to argue that, in aggregate, the US has no real culture. Or at least no singular culture. I would go so far as to say we are uncultured but that’s got sort of a different meaning. Simply keep in mind that the US is just over 200 years old, that’s not nearly enough to see some of the cultural traditions that exist in the other countries of the world to develop.
Europeland is a couple of thousand years of cultural tradition, China about 5000. The other countries of the world are in that ballpark (trust me, I’m as much of a historian/sociologist as I am a geographer or mathematician so bear with me for skimming on the details here; I’ll just get them wrong and give people yet more excuses to nitpick irrelevant stuff).
At only 200 years and change old, the US is a baby and hasn’t developed any really singular culture unless you count mom, baseball, apple pie, rampant obesity, Michael Bay movies, and breast implants. And even if you disagree with that, you can’t disagree with the fact that what culture the US does have is not a singular type. That is, go to Britain and most of it is pretty similar to the rest with slight variations depending on the local flavor. Because most of Britain (or England or the UK or GB or whatever) has existed as Britain for a couple of thousand years.
But in the US it’s all over the map and trying to pin down a singular culture (beyond some generalities I’ll make shortly) is impossible. It just doesn’t exist in the US and it’s not going to, the structure of the country as a whole won’t allow it and neither would the people. Because developing a single culture would mean moving, effectively, backwards from where we are now. We’d be moving from more of something to less of something and that’s just not going to happen.
That said, however, I will also argue that you can find pockets of local culture (i.e. areas where the culture is consistent within that area) due to issues of location, weather, when and by whom the states were settled by and all of those other factors that always go into this. This is, areas that may be exceedingly similar to itself but drastically different from other parts of the US.
Local idioms, dialect, norms, etc. all vary across these groups and locales. Nobody would confuse New Jersey for Oklahoma, or Floridians for Oregonians. Or confuse a New York accent (caw-fee) with a Boston accent (wicked smaht, retahded) with a southern accent (God’s chosen language) to the beach speak of Southern California (tasty waves, brah). Put them all in the same room and you’d swear you were dealing with folks who have nothing in common with one another. And they sort of don’t outside of being bipedal and from the USA. Half of them wouldn’t understand a word the other half was saying.
Consider New England (damn Yankees!) to the south (God’s chosen land) and the huge differences (and rivalry) that exists between the two areas. Or East Coast vs. West Coast (Tupac is dead, deal with it) in terms of standards, norms and cultural differences. Easy example, watch Beat Street and Breakin’ back to back and you’ll see East coast vs. West coast writ large. Headspins and windmills vs. Electric Boogaloo; Bronx Rockers vs. whatever a Shabadoo is.
Or contrast, for example, urban blacks from New York to rural blacks in the south; anything I’d add to that will sound racist. The south is more similar to itself than to the north but Florida (which is in the south) isn’t considered a Southern state. West Virginia is about as different from Mississipi as France is from England; there’s less inbreeding in West Virginia for example. Texas has southern elements but it’s Texas (God’s truly chosen people and country) and not truly the south. I’m a southerner by birth and a Texan by choice and I can tell the difference.
The midwest is it’s own odd area, if you go to Minnesota or Wisconsin, you must memorize the phrase “Ya ya, doncha know.” and learn Sven and Ollie jokes; ‘pop’ refers to anything carbonated. In the south it’s Earl and Bubba jokes and you must realize that “y’all” is singular and “all y’all” is plural and that all soda is a ‘Coke’ even Sprite. Go to New York and you should memorize the phrases “Fuggadaboudit” and “What the fuck are you looking at?” And carry a gun.
In a state like California, it’s even stranger, the state is so big that what you see depends on where you are. Southern California has a culture and language distinct from Northern California and the Inland Empire is different entirely (take a gun there, too). Don’t go to Victorville regardless; it’s ‘on the way to Vegas’ for a reason.
Get my point?
Another factor to keep in mind when looking at American culture is that we are an entirely immigrant country (excepting the small group of indigenous folks that we rapidly oppressed, murdered and drove into a life of alcoholism and casino management). And the folks who founded this country, by and large, represents that slice of humanity that didn’t get along with everybody else, who just couldn’t get along in their home country or culture and set out to do their own thing.
The first settlers in America were the folks who didn’t like it back home for one reason or another (specifically religious persecution, their idea of the Big Imaginary Guy in the sky was different than everyone else’s). So they upped and left and founded their own damn country to oppress everyone with their peculiar beliefs about the Big Dude in the Sky. And it built from there.
The US is called the Melting Pot for a reason and we had, at least up until recently, an open door policy. Anybody who wanted in was welcomed and there have been various waves of immigrants over the short history of the country. And it was almost invariably the same types of folks showing up for their apple: usually the folks coming to this country were the ones who disliked it enough back home or didn’t fit in and wanted a fresh start. Or who just wanted more opportunities than they had in their country of birth with it’s thousands of years of unchanging tradition. In the US, anything was possible and the opportunities were endless. In premise at least.
Basically, the US is made up of the individualistic rejects of the world. And I mean that in a positive fashion since I don’t think being statistically abnormal (I’m using that word in it’s literal sense with no negative connotation) is necessarily a bad thing. But America is made up of the folks that didn’t fit in, weren’t happy with the status quo, who wanted to try something else or just to give their countryfolks the big middle finger by going somewhere with more TV channels (or more than one).
So they upped and left and ended up here where they invariably ended up setting up small enclaves just like it was back home. Hence you get Little Italies, China Town, pockets of Middle Easterners or Hispanics, Jewish communities, etc. Makes perfect sense: spend enormous energy getting out of your home country to get to the USA (#1) to set up an area that’s just like it was back home. Just with more breast implants and donut shops.
One huge consequence of this, that I’ll spend an entire section in the next part on is the hugely individualistic nature and attitude of most Americans. Which just has to come out of the people who came here. As above, the folks who were happy just towing the cultural line and staying in the motherland aren’t the ones that came here initially (they often followed afterwards). Rather, it was the folks with that inherent individualistic streak who started the migration. And it shows up in spades in the overall attitude of ‘Merkuns towards, well…everything. But that’s for later.
Physiology and Genetics
Relative to sports specifically is that, due to the immigrant nature of the country, the US arguably contains the greatest mixture of different ethnic groups (again, I’m avoiding the word ‘race’ here) of any country in the world. The former Soviet union, pretty homogeneous buncha white eastern Europeans. China, pretty Chinese. The UK and parts of Europe are more mixed than many may realize (and I certainly didn’t focus on this in those posts) with a large minority population but I don’t think anything can compare to the US in terms of the sheer breadth of ethnic groups represented here.
You name an ethnic group and they are represented here and we try to accommodate them all on some level. Dating myself, I remember growing up watching Sesame Street in the 1970’s and the big thing was teaching Spanish because that was the recent group of immigrants that had shown up. The last time I watched it (college: 1990’s; we had a lot of free time), they were teaching kids to count in Laotian and at this point it’s probably Mandarin. I’m not joking. But all Asian cultures, blacks of all descent, Hispanics, East Indians, Middle Easterners, whites of every country on the planet; you name it and you can find them to one degree or another here.
Which given the specialized nature of sports these days has a number of implications that I will obviously touch on later.
And believe it or not, this is only one-fourth of my rambling on this topic and I’m cutting it here. See you next time.
Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 10.
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 14
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Notes to the Nitpickers
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 10
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 8
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 13