Unterreiner: Sport, space and the nation

Aug. 9, 2012, 1:29 a.m.

Every four years, just as America is at its most divided, we have a chance to come together again through sport. This election year, there is more to divide us than usual. Thankfully, there is more to unite us as well.

I write primarily about politics, and the more I read and write, the more discouraged I tend to become. Every day seems much like the next: another Israeli-Palestinian peace plan fallen through, another shooting at a cinema or temple, another bombing in Iraq, another squabble over health care or tax returns or fried chicken, another fight between the 1 percent and the 99 percent over, in Lasswell’s famous definition, who gets what, when and how.

That’s why I so treasure those few truly politics-free moments — the moments when we are no longer Republicans or Democrats, upper-crust or lower-class, black or white or brown, but simply Americans. Those moments don’t come often, and most of them seem to come at the Olympics.

It was impossible to feel cynical about much of anything when Gabby Douglas’ smile lit up the world after winning the all-around. The furor around Mitt Romney’s comments about Britain’s preparedness for the Games disappeared from memory when Britain’s Mo Farah and our very own Galen Rupp, training partners in Oregon, embraced after going 1-2 in the 10,000 meter final — two men of different faiths, different ethnicities and different countries, united through shared, brutal effort in the service of sport. Politics lay forgotten as the entire country watched Alex Morgan put a brilliant finish past a horrified Canadian squad in the final minute of extra time, snapping 122 minutes of tension in one final moment of glorious victory. To paraphrase Barack Obama: At that moment we were no longer divided into red states and blue states, but united as fifty red, white and blue states.

When I’m watching NBC’s wonderfully nationalistic coverage of the Games, swamped in patriotic slow-motion montages of American athletes overcoming tremendous adversity to run, jump, swim and, in Ryan Lochte’s case, give disastrous interviews for the stars and stripes, I forget for a moment all the things that need fixing about our country and remember everything we’ve done right.

And among those things is continuing to support the American space program, which recently landed the cutting-edge Curiosity rover on Mars after a ridiculously complex landing procedure involving parachutes, rockets and, in the final moments of the so-called “seven minutes of terror,” delicate landing cables.

These are the moments that make us remember why we live in this country, the moments when we can honestly and unflinchingly celebrate collective national achievements, the moments where rancor and bitterness have no place.

They are also the moments on which it is most difficult to place a price tag. Who knows what will come of our distant exploration of a mysterious planet, or which child will be inspired to do great things by watching Missy Franklin or Michael Phelps?

Already, however, critics on both sides of the partisan divide have raised complaints that we ought not to spend the time and money to explore space when there are pressing problems here on Earth; that pure government-funded research without a direct and immediate impact on human welfare is inherently useless; that Olympic athletes get too much attention, earn too much money and divert our attention from more important problems.

Those complaints constitute a dangerous narrowing of our vision and a frightening lowering of our ambitions for humanity. Confining our discussions of the public welfare to narrow questions of self-interest, division and distribution robs the nation of its ability to enjoy a good life that cannot be captured by recourse to numbers, facts and figures.

There is a time and place for everything, and the problems of our nation and the world cannot be solved by feel-good heroics alone. But as far as it is in our power, we ought to continue to support the projects, people and ideas that transcend our small, man-made boundaries and enrich the sum of this human experience we all share.

Share your favorite Olympic moment with Miles at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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