Redemption, Nationalism and other Olympic Myths

A Story of Redemption, Psychology And, Well, Basketball

Posted Jul 31, 2008

It is, as it turns out, one of the most familiar American stories. I'm talking about basketball, of course, and in this case, specifically, Olympic basketball.

For those of you who may have been living in caves deep in the Himalaya for the past twenty years, here's the story so far:

Basketball was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1936. From 1936 to 1972 the US won every gold medal there was to win. In 1972, a series of peculiar referee calls gave the Soviet team three shots at beating America which, on the last of those shots, they finally did, though many do not consider this a loss rather an unfortunately example of American foreign policy coming home to roost.

We next lost in 1988, again to the Soviets, and this was a loss that stung. To lesson some of that sting, in 1992, the US assembled what will forever be known as "the dream team."

Because of a 1989 rule change, FIBA allowed the US, for the first time ever, to assemble a ‘dream team' of pros. Team USA was arguably the most insane b-ball roster ever to take the floor: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Chrsitian Laettner and Chris Mullen (only two of these players, Mullen and Laettner, are not on the NBA's list of the 50 greatest players in history).

The Dream Team won each game on its way to Olympic gold by an average margin of victory of 43.8 and, perhaps even more incredibly, won all of those games without coach Chuck Daly ever calling a timeout.

This era of dominance lasted until the year 2000 and then, well, darkness settled in. Whether it was the result of the rising tide of high-quality international play or the unbridled egomania of American athletes (who though they were so superior that they could slap together a team and barely practice and still coast to victory) or some combination of the two, the US has lately been dethroned from their hoop high.

Which brings us to the story of the Beijing Olympics, which is-according to just about anyone questioned about the topic-a story of redemption. In fact, just yesterday, Dwayne Wade, one of four holdovers from the losing 2004 squad, told reporters: "That's what it is," says Wade, "a road to redemption. 2004 was a hurt year for a lot of us-not just the players but for the world. A lot of people were hurt by it. So this is a redemption year."

Northwestern psychologist and the author of The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, Dan McAdams, has spent his career studying redemption and its peculiar nationalistic edge.

‘At their core, redemption stories are those about deliverance from suffering to an enhanced status or state. And it's a story Americans seem to love."

McAdams points to everything from the rags-to-riches stories of Ben Franklin and Horatio Algiers to the born-again experience that has become such a mainstay in the ecstatic Christian traditions (traditions that are extremely popular here in America) as basic examples of redemption stories that seem core to our culture.

He also mentions that the recovery story-so common on Oprah and in AA (and even dating back to Emerson in the 19th Century)-is a version of the redemption story that is exceptionally American.

"This is the story of innocence lost and then regained" says McAdams. "Of having it all and losing it all and then getting it back again. It's a unique story in that it both looks back to the past and forward to the future is part of the can-do optimism that is central to our national myths. And it's definitely the mythology of this year's Olympic basketball team."

What makes this all the more psychologically interesting is that McAdams has also found that people who are "doing something with their lives, trying to make a positive change in the world, and other similar clichés" often have some sort of redemption story to frame their efforts.

It's hard to say exactly why this works, but a good guess is that unlike other forms of positive thinking, the optimism based on a story of personal redemption is real that's grounded in one's own life, a sense of verisimilitude that McAdams feels makes much of the difference.

Will it make much of the difference in China? Well, that part of the story remains to be seen. Though yesterday's throttling of Turkey by 32 points was a damn fine start.