Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images
A Reason to Rejoice in These Olympics
(And a note to Krystina Tsimanouskaya)
I’m hearing it once again, the call to silence those Olympic Athletes willing to stand up and give voice to the injustice and oppression they see—injustices that are pervasive and real, but often dismissed by those who refuse to recognize them.
Having proudly worn the American Flag on my shoulder for twenty-six years, I find myself slightly uncomfortable at times with what I see, but in the end my concern is not with the athletes, but with those who would prefer to silence them. The individual right of self-expression is at the heart of what it means to be an American, after all, and any efforts to infringe upon that right is a concern that we should all share, whether we served in uniform or not.
What I’ve come to realize as the Olympics moved forward is the need to recognize these expressions for what they truly are: simple, peaceful protests—exactly what so many across the nation have called for in the past few years. We should also see it as an opportunity to celebrate and rejoice—an opportunity to stand tall and recognize that the very thing that bothers some people or challenges their notion of what it means to be an American, is the very thing that makes our country AMAZING—the FREEDOM to express one's opinion and not suffer the consequences from a government bent on silencing its citizens.
The Chinese, Russians or Cuban athletes could never express dissent on the world stage without severe consequences for them and their families. I don't know if the people looking to silence our Olympians have kept up with the news, but the Belarus sprinter, Krystina Tsimanouskaya, who shared her frustration on social media, was whisked away to the airport by force for simply expressing discontent with her coaches—coaches who pushed her to engage in an event she hadn't trained for. Her totalitarian regime pulled her from the games and wanted to silence her. Fearing for her life, she has sought asylum in Poland, but what of her family and her own future?
Like many veterans I've worked and spoken with over the years, it makes me uncomfortable at times to see these displays, but I refuse to see them as anti-American or unpatriotic. Instead, I recognize them for what they are: anti-policy or anti-injustice, and a means of shedding light on them. Yes, it is uncomfortable to see our imperfections laid bare on the world stage. But WE must learn to rejoice in that uncomfortable feeling, for without it, we become a nation in denial, preferring to avoid reality and move backwards.
I wonder, is this what some Americans would prefer? I’ve heard them say that this isn’t the platform or the time for dissent, that the athletes are representing America, should focus on what makes us great, and of course, the standard love it or leave it. But the fact is, their freedom to choose and ability to move beyond the silence is the very thing that makes us great. Expressing dissent and disagreement in any form and on any stage is what has always made American a beacon to those longing to escape persecution. To deny that right goes against what it means to be American. These expressions allows us as a society to examine the underlying issues and affect change in the long term. We don’t have to look back very far to recognize how different our nation was before oppressed voices allowed us to see the world anew and to help us reimagine the future. A move toward a more perfect union and just society doesn't come without making the difficult choice of looking in the mirror and seeing the flaws that still exist across this vast expanse of land—yes, all of it, from sea to shining sea.
The Olympians represent the best of us, athletes who have devoted their entire life to excellence—a life of discipline amid the various struggles that many have faced in an imperfect, and sometimes unjust society. To belittle or try to silence them for their dissent goes against everything that every soldier, sailor, airmen or marine ever fought for—the right to freedom of expression.
I for one, am rejoicing in these Olympic games, rejoicing in the conviction and strength of character it took for many athletes to share their truth, and I am rejoicing in the actions of that young woman from Belarus. Thank you, Krystina, for having the courage and conviction to push back against oppression and to remind many Americans of how fortunate we are. I wish you all the luck in the world. And should you need a new shore to land upon to escape further persecution, we will welcome you here, as we have welcomed millions before.
J.A. Moad II is a former Air Force Pilot who served as an English Professor at United States Air Force Academy. He is currently a writer, performer and pilot living in Minnesota.