All the anxiety about the Olympic torch passing through San Francisco today -- will it elicit the same kind of disruptive protests seen in London and Paris? -- reminds me of watching the torch passing through the city back in 1984, on its way to Los Angeles.
A small crowd gathered in front of City Hall and we all felt a little disappointed that it was hard to see. The middle-aged guy who was carrying it during that stretch, who was visibly straining with the effort (should have dug out that photo...) went by so quickly it really was like the blink of an eye.
Then we quickly realized that we had by instinct or habit gathered in a ceremonial spot, and if we just stood at a more random street corner we'd get a better look. The torch's path was loopy even as it made its way through downtown San Francisco, so it was easy enough to catch up with it again.
There was a TV commercial that year showing a couple of farmers, maybe a father and his son, leaving their fields and their work early in the morning to go stand by the road and stand lonely vigil, waiting for the torch to go by. They applauded modestly as it did. Everyone was bathed in the warm light of sunrise and patriotism. I can't find it quickly on YouTube and I can't remember what product was being advertised.
The games in Los Angeles came at a peak moment of flag waving in this country. Remember how proud we were about exorcising the ghosts of Vietnam by kicking butt in Grenada the year before?
We had boycotted the Moscow games in 1980 in anger over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Context is everything.) In return, they boycotted the L.A. games. This had the happy effect of guaranteeing a bumper crop of gold medals for the U.S.
The crowds in L.A. constantly chanted "USA! USA!" I remember being at the boxing arena. One of the matches didn't feature an American, which was unusual. The combatants were from Canada and South Korea. A large contingent of L.A.'s large population of Koreans had turned out and chanted "Korea! Korea!"
Naturally, most of the rest of us good Americans tauntingly chanted "Canada! Canada!"
The politicization of the Olympic Games is one of those media perennials, like the loss of American innocence. They are always political and we are always shocked that they are so. This year, that's clearly the case with a vengeance.