Growing up, I remember hating the Russians. They were Soviets back then, but I hated them anyway. And the Germans, and Japanese, and anyone else our military had conflicts with during my formative years.
I spent my time in Ft. Bragg, N.C., "killing" every one of them. I played war games for hours on end, days upon days, with all of my fellow military brat friends. Despite the television pundits, my wielding a "gun" in my formative years of war games did not make me a serial killer. Although I'm a pacifist at heart, I respect and support the right to bear arms, but that's a column idea for a different section.
I couldn't stomach anyone that wasn't American. When the Olympics came on every four years my distaste for those foreigners got more intense. Especially in the Winter Olympics because we weren't dominating the winter sports as I was led to believe we Americans should have done in everything we did.
But then something happened that changed my whole outlook. Her name was Olga Korbut.
I was supposed to hate her. After all, she represented the dreaded Soviet gymnastics team. But something about that electric smile and her true joy of competition made it hard to not like her. In fact, with her pigtails and her electric smile, you couldn't help but fall in love with her. Although she failed in three attempts to start her uneven bars in which she was heavily favored giving the title to her teammate, she still brought home gold medals in balance beam, floor exercise and team competition.
But she was just the first. After her came Franz Klammer, Nadia Comeneci, Katarina Witt, Alberto Tomba, Usain Bolt and many, many others that captured the attention of the games and stole our hearts, much like Olga.
Watching this year's winter Olympics is so different for me. Certainly I am rooting for everything and everyone American, regardless of the events and their expectations for success. But for some reason, I'm rooting for the athletes themselves and their wonderful human interest stories, not really caring for which flag they are competing or whether or not we as Americans are supposed to hate them.
Sports have a way of eliminating our differences and emphasizing our similarities whether it's on the multi-national stage or on a roster of a local recreation team. On my college team alone, we had white Americans and African-Americans, South Koreans and Jamaicans, rednecks and prima donnas, and stoners and sobers. But something about it all worked.
Everyone's making such a big deal out of Missouri's Michael Sam and his possibly being the first openly gay player in the NFL. Ask his current teammates and most of the ones on his potential suitors in the NFL and you'll find that most people really don't care. If you can get the job done, whether you're gay or straight, Russian or American, all we care about in sports is what you bring to the competition.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress." What better way than sports to highlight what's good in all of us.
Reach Robert "Bird" Brown at 410-857-8552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.