US takes first prize for self-delusion

America thinks it's the greatest, even when the whole world can see its failures. Godfrey Hodgson takes the European view
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"U!-S!-A!" There were times when there was something sickening, even menacing about the rhythmic chanting, times even when it made the hearer wonder what it would have been like to have been in Berlin in 1936.

There was something ugly, too, about the Atlanta crowd's unsporting reactions. When South Africa's Wayne Ferreira, playing out of his socks, was leading Andre Agassi, the crowd regularly applauded his mistakes. It was a small thing, but it left little doubt that to the home crowd, the Olympic ideal was meaningless. The point was not to take part or to compete bravely, but to win; and most important of all was for Americans to win.

Not too much in that, you might say. Indeed, to many Americans it would sound like sour grapes. If Britain had been doing as well as the United States seemed to be doing, who can doubt that British crowds would be baying for blood as they did in Euro 96; and all the more desperately anxious for victory because it had been so rare?

What shocked many foreign visitors to Atlanta was the contrast between the shining office towers and the tacky commercialism of the streets underneath. The world has been so conditioned to believe that American society is super-efficient that visitors and contestants were genuinely surprised that buses ran late and the organisation so often broke down. The bomb, whoever turns out to have planted it, was a tragic accident that could have happened anywhere. But the contrast between the boasting of the organisers and the chaos they were presiding over did come as a surprise.

Another contrast is even more striking. Viewers of NBC's coverage would have got the impression that the Games were a triumph for American sports. But relatively speaking, the United States did not in fact do so very well in Atlanta.

An American contestant was quoted as saying the Olympics were like a domestic meet with a few foreigners. The reality is that the foreigners not only did better than before. They did better than the Americans.

You don't believe it? To be sure there were stunning American performances from Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson. But whether you count gold medals, or the overall tally of medals, the surprising fact is that the United States did significantly worse than Western Europe, let alone than Europe as a whole.

The United States, as of Saturday evening, had won 42 gold medals. The fifteen nations of the European Union had won 72 - to which Britain contributed just one. Western Europe, of whose existence, let alone of whose athletic prowess, the American TV commentators seemed to be almost unaware, actually won 75 per cent more gold medals than the United States.

If you count all medals, the discrepancy is even greater. The United States won 99 medals. The European Union, with a similar population, won 218. Europe as a whole (including Russia) won 413 medals - more than four times as many as the United States.

The comparison is interesting in itself. You might conclude from it, for example, that the massive public investment in athletics tracks, gyms, tennis courts, swimming pools and above all coaching in Western Europe (though not in Britain) has paid off, while the ultra-commercialisation of sport in the US (and increasingly in Britain) has not steered resources in sufficient quantities to the young people who need them if they are to become champions.

You could pursue that thought further still, if you were so minded. You could say that in the days when massive funding was available to public high schools and to publicly funded universities like the University of California, the United States really did rule track and field. Now, in the era of big money pro sports and the winner-take-all-society, that supremacy has been eroded.

A second line of thought would focus on asking why, when such a dramatic reversal of the athletic relationship between Europe and the United States was taking place, it was almost wholly ignored by the British media. British newspapers and television reporting from Atlanta focused on British athletics failure and the tatty commercialism and organisational incompetence of the Games. No one pointed out the interesting fact that, while Americans were being told by their media that they were Numero Uno, they were actually worse than the despised Europeans.

Some commentators did point out that NBC's coverage averted its eyes from American defeat like a Victorian virgin averting her eyes from the facts of life. But most accepted at face value the proposition that the United States was once again triumphant as well as triumphalist when a simple check of the daily medal count would have shown this was not so. Indeed, for quite a long period France and Germany alone, with roughly half the population of the US, had actually won more gold medals between them than the United States.

The question is not why the United States is chauvinist. Virtually all nations are chauvinist if their results in war, in the marketplace or on the sportsfield give them any excuse. The question is why American chauvinism has got so far out of touch with reality.

An immediate cause is the political creed of Reaganism. A major part of the appeal of the new conservatism in the late 1970s and the 1980s was its reassurance that Americans could put the humiliations and the frustrations of the 1960s and the early 1970s behind them.

When Ronald Reagan and his handlers chose "It's morning in America!" as the slogan of his successful 1984 re-election campaign, they were calculating on a deep national yearning to forget urban disruption, racial conflict, declining competitiveness, ejection from Vietnam, the Panama canal and Iran. That slogan and that campaign were spectacularly successful. Americans desperately wanted to believe that a long national nightmare was over.

Unfortunately, they developed the habit in the Reagan years of wanting so badly to believe they were doing well that they stopped looking to see how well they actually were doing. Thus, for example, many Americans devoutly believe that the vast majority of their population is made up of university graduates, when the actual figure is 23 per cent and has scarcely moved up in 20 years.

Worse, quite a few American intellectuals acquired the habit of being contemptuously angry with anyone - American or foreign - who dared to raise questions about the superiority of the imperial wardrobe. Great reputations were made in the US media by those who jeered at any who questioned American superemacy.

Some of the Numero Uno complex was grounded in undeniable fact. The United States does have the world's biggest and most powerful single economy, just as it was the biggest single medal-winner in the Olympics. Americans individually are still just about the richest people in the world - though the gap has shrunk dramatically over the past 30 years.

But the impression of superiority conferred by the sheer size of the single unit can sometimes lead American opinion-formers to exaggerate the margin by which they lead the world. Nothing could be more natural than for ordinary Americans, accustomed from their childhood to be told their country is the richest, the strongest, the most successful, their teeth the whitest and their cars the fastest, not to notice that in many respects the margin of that superiority has dwindled and even in some respects disappeared.

That is not the worst of it, though. One of the movements that sprung up to challenge the assumptions of traditional American liberalism in the late 1960s and the 1970s was the neo-conservative movement, and one of the shibboleths of neo-conservatism was what is called "American exceptionalism".

This is not the view that the United States is bigger, stronger or richer than its rivals. It is the belief, deeply grounded in American history and in American religion, that the United States is morally superior to other nations.

With loving complacency, the exceptionalists roll on their tongues the sacred texts of complacency, evoking America, "a city built upon a hill"; the American, "this new man"; the United States, "the last best hope of mankind".

American exceptionalism is not new. It was carried to New England by its Puritan founders and carried across a continent by preachers and divines. It was also a belief that appealed to those who had left feudal, ethnic or economic exploitation in Ireland, Poland and Sicily, in the Ukraine, Lancashire factories and the downstairs of London.

It is not wholly unjustified. It really is the case that emigration to the United States was a liberating experience, the offer of new life. In some cases, let us not forget, this was literally true. American Jews are specially conscious of that. If their parents had not emigrated, said Irving Howe, the historian of the Lower East Side, "we might all have been bars of soap".

Having said that, it is not good for people or for nations if their picture of themselves diverges too acutely from reality, or from the perception of others. To convince yourself that you have won in an athletic contest which you actually lost is not a good idea.

It is even less of a good idea in foreign policy. The Cold War is over, but there are signs that Americans are casting round for new enemies to replace the communists, and that the American news media and American politicians are encouraging them to do so.

When the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed, the initial reaction was to blame the Arabs. Well, it wasn't the Arabs; it was American super- patriots. Now President Clinton seems intent on picking a quarrel with Iran on the grounds that it is the sponsor of terrorism. But the evidence is shaky, the consequences of punitive action against Iran dodgy to say the least, and the idea that all, or even most, terrorism comes from Iran absurd.

Trade policy is another example. The Clinton administration's spokesmen behaved as if the only reason the Japanese don't buy left-hand drive Chevrolets is because their government is opposed to free competition. Let's be more "aggressive", they said, like cheerleaders at a high school football game - and put most of the world's backs up.

It may just be possible to persuade people in Britain of the innate moral superiority of American civilisation: since we speak English, we have been exposed to dangerously high levels of indoctrination. In any case we are going through cultural panic on a historic scale.

American exceptionalism, though, is less likely to appeal to Frenchmen and Germans, Japanese and Russians; let alone Africans and Muslims, Chinese and Japanese. It is dangerous for Americans to persuade themselves that the world accepts their own view of themselves - particularly if that self-perception comes to diverge too far from the truth.

Preoccupied with flattering the American people in the run-up to re-election, Bill Clinton can be expected to chant U!-S!-A! Indeed, only yesterday he did just that, when he insisted that the United States was "indispensable". Viewing the world through the lenses of news media that have all but ceased to notice the existence of Europe and demonised Islam, the voters he is trying to woo cannot be blamed for thinking that the world saw the Atlanta Games as the apotheosis of American capitalism. What they really suggested to many for the first time was that maybe the United States talks a better game than it plays.