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Billy Reed: Our U.S. athletes represent the best of us; Trump, politicians are on the opposite side

This veteran TV watcher – I go back to the days when Milton Berle was king of the black-and-white tube – has been on an unprecedented emotional roller-coaster ride for the last week or so. The Olympic Games bring me up; Donald Trump brings me down.

Every time a Michael Phelps or a Simone Biles wins another gold medal, causing my heart to soar, Trump tells a blatant lie or says something obscene and obnoxious, sending me plummeting into confusion: How in the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower did we ever sink to this level?

The United States athletes, the majority of which are female, represent the best of us; the Republican nominee for President represents the worst, especially when he discusses his female opponent or the current occupant of the White House.

Our athletes play by the rules; Trump has no rules. Our athletes are humble in victory; Trump can’t spell humble. Our athletes are all about hope and courage and goodness; Trump is all about fear and cowardice and indecency.

Trump says, “Let’s make America great again,” as if our nation has somehow lost its way. Our athletes say, “America is the greatest and we want to make it better.” Trump plays nice-nice with Vladimir Putin, the gangster who runs Russia; our athletes call out some of their Russian competitors for cheating.

I look at our athletes and I don’t see narcissism, bullying, vulgarism, name-calling, hate-mongering, or prejudice. I look at Trump and that’s all I see. I look at our athletes and I feel optimistic about the future; I look at Trump and I see Armageddon.

When Jesse Owens, an African-American from Ohio State, won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, smashing Adolf Hitler’s theory of Aryan Supremacy, der Fuhrer left the stadium rather than shake Owens’ hand or watch him receive his medals while the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played.

I will not compare Hitler’s hatred of Jews and non-blacks with Trump’s stated feelings about Muslims and Hispanics. And yet the similarities are impossible to ignore. In Rio, our athletes are trying to tear down walls and build trust; in our Presidential campaign, Trump wants to build walls and destroy trust.

Olympic athletes have a mutual respect for each other because each knows how hard everyone has worked to reach the pinnacle. They treat each other with deference and respect. A breach in good sportsmanship is taken seriously and denounced roundly.

Trump and his supporters respect nothing, including the truth. They mock and taunt and boo their opponents. Sometimes, with the tacit approval of their leader, they resort to violence. To many in the world, they are more than just “ugly Americans.” They bring to mind the thuggery that’s all too familiar in countries ruled by dictators.

When our American athletes march into the stadium at the opening ceremonies, I always cry. I can’t explain it to say that I’m just very proud of our young people and the nation they represent. The America I know is not the disaster that Trump describes. It is still a nation based on high-minded goals and principles. I must believe that, at least, because the alternative is unthinkable.

As a journalist, the Olympics always tested my ability to be objective. I never cheered in the pressbox, but I did shed a tear or two when I watched an American athlete – especially somebody from home such as Mary T. Meagher or Mike Silliman – stand atop the winner’s stand with a gold medal around their necks.

I tried to be fair in my reporting, giving credit to athletes from other nations when justified. I admired the long-distance runner Kip Keino of Kenya and the boxer Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba. Right now I’m looking forward to once again watching the amazing sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica.

But I was biased toward the Americans. I admit it.

The circus that passes for Trump’s campaign also tests my journalistic objectivity. Although I’ve been a registered Democrat most of my life, I have voted for a Republican when I though he or she was the better candidate. I tried to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt.

But I can’t do that with Trump. He has gone so far beyond the pale, so deep into vile and disgusting behavior, that he does not deserve anything but scorn and contempt. I fail to understand how anybody can support a candidate who does nothing but bash his own country repeatedly.

Unfortunately, the Olympics will end far too soon and the political campaign will last far too long. But the more Trump does to be a new kind of American terrorist, the more I will try to remember the old-fashioned American idealism and patriotism that I’ve been seeing in Rio.

I can only hope that some of our athletes will pick a career in government and politics. They would not be the first. Bob Mathias, who won the Olympic decathlon in 1952, became a U.S. Congressman from California, and Bill Bradley, a member of the 1964 gold-medal basketball team, became a U.S. Senator from New Jersey and 2000 Presidential candidate.

Now, more than ever, we need leaders with the kind of values that they’ve learned from competing at the highest international levels. They’ve already learned to respect people regardless of their color, religion, gender or nationality, and that gives them a big edge over the Trumps of the world.


Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby

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