I love British comedy, whether it's a Monty Python sketch or a cringe-inducing episode of The Inbetweeners or how they keep pretending that Victoria Beckham serves a purpose.
I appreciate their aggressive sarcasm, their self-deprecation and their willingness both to mock and sympathize with the socially awkward, so I've been all "Yay humo(u)r!" until this week, when I saw illustrator Toby Leigh's line of Olympics-themed canvas tote bags. His three cheekily copyright-infringing designs feature jagged representations of the London 2012 logo and phrases like "I'm renting my flat to a fat American family" and "They're all on steroids."
And that made me stop laughing. It has nothing to do with the collective BMIs of vacationing Americans (and news flash, fish and chippers, you're not waddling far behind us on that list of the World's Fattest Nations) because who really cares about the opinion of a man who lists "tea towel designer" on his LinkedIn profile? But the other one I can't shake as easily, if only because that's what so many Olympics viewers — American Olympics viewers — will be thinking as the track and field events get underway.
It's hard not to blame the audience for being skeptical. The Washington Post collected all of the reasons that swimming has freestyled and butterflied past track as the Summer Games' must-see event and most of them involve track's multi-decade relationship with illegal substances. Sprinters, just like professional cyclists, train and compete under the category of "innocent until they're peeing something guilty."
Part of the problem is that the best part of the Olympics — that these athletes have the world's eyeballs on them — is also the worst. Most people are only exposed to track and field every four years, which means that bad experiences and bad impressions linger like a mouthful of store-brand Gatorade. Even though we sent a clean team to Beijing, and even though squeaky clean sprinters like Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter and Tyson Gay will compete in London, it still seems like it's been a long time since we believed anyone, let alone believed in them.
Getting from Friday's first heats to next Sunday's closing ceremonies without littering the outside lanes with allegations and suspicion would be a big step, one that could help track regain some of its mid-1980s mojo. And a strong showing by Team USA could help some of our athletes get the name recognition and Bob Costas sit-downs that they desperately need.
Our swimmers don't have those problems. Michael Phelps, the Official Elongated Face of the Olympic Games, hasn't been accused of doping with anything but marijuana (which he more or less admitted after that pic of him ripping bong hits was released) but that's not really performance enhancing unless the IOC adds "Hot Pocket Consumption" and "Getting Really, Really into Fleet Foxes" to the 2016 program.
And as WaPo noted, unlike swimming, track's biggest stars don't have tiny American flags beside their names. The current and previous World's Fastest Men, Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell, are Jamaican. The last Americans to hold that title were Justin Gatlin, whose 100-meter record was rescinded after a failed drug test, and Tim Montgomery, who owes his asterisk to his involvement with BALCO.
Thanks to them, America's recent 100m achievements look as fake and fabricated as a Jonah Lehrer quote.
Even Carl Lewis — voted the Olympian of the Century by Sports Illustrated — later admitted he'd taken illegal stimulants and had failed a series of pre-Seoul Olympics drug tests (although his version of "The Star Spangled Banner" is still the worst thing he ever did).
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
If Seoul started track's downhill skid, the 2000 Sydney Olympics buried it somewhere deep in a biohazard bin. The success of five-time medalist Marion Jones seemed quintuply disappointing when she had to return all that metal, like a bitter divorcee at a Cash-4-Gold counter. (The late Antonio Pettigrew was also stripped of his Australian-earned medal and I'm gonna guess that it's not a coincidence that Nike didn't include designs from Seoul or Sydney in their Olympics track-themed "Heritage" collection.)
Even now, our team has the ghosts of its PED past looming over it. We have two formerly banned sprinters, Gatlin and 400 man LaShawn Merritt (who has maintained his innocence, claiming that his positive test was from a package of penis-enhancing pills he bought at a 7-11.)
But … but … BUT … if the only positives that come out of the London Games are in headline form ("Justin Gatlin stuns Usain Bolt, Entire World") and the only misstep is when Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce trips over one of her hyphens (handing a 100 win to Jeter, obviously), the next week could put a lot of distance between reality and reputation.
I'm pulling for our runners, not just to beat the rest of the world, but to beat Seoul, to beat Sydney, to beat all of those stereotypes. They don't need to be running from those mistakes as much as they need to sprint toward a cleaner, more credible future. Because if they don't learn from history, they're not going to have the chance to make it.
Somebody better put that on a tote bag.