Peter Shelton

Political Sign Language

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on August 30, 2012

The newest election-season sign along Highway 550 south of Colona reads: “Citizen, not Politician.” It was put up by Jack Flowers or by others supporting his candidacy for Ouray’s District 1 commissioner seat.

This is a cynical manipulation. I say, question the premise. Think about the words and what they mean.

Juxtaposing these things – citizen, politician – is a false choice, a misdirection play (to use a football analogy).

First, politicians are citizens. Second, citizens (amateurs or outsiders in election-speak) don’t necessarily, or even usually, make better public servants than do so-called politicians.

Yes, I know, there have been and likely always will be sleazy politicians. But that’s not the issue here. In tiny Ouray County, any citizen who signs a petition, or writes a letter to the editor, is expressing his or her politics. And the commissioners, going as far back as I can remember, have invariably been public servants of the local, citizen-soldier variety. “Soldier,” because they are not paid nearly enough to compensate for the critical fire they take.

Is first-time candidate Flowers (or his sign-writer) saying that his opponent, incumbent Lynn Padgett, is a politician and somehow not a citizen? Or that she is some kind of lesser citizen because she has taken on the job of commissioner, on top of her jobs as a natural resources consultant, mother and wife?

Padgett has, in fact, committed an extraordinary amount of time and effort to the job over the last four years. She put so much energy into representing Ouray County’s interests she was voted Commissioner of the Year for 2011 by Colorado Counties, Inc., a non-partisan outfit representing all 64 counties in the state.

Through research and networking, she has got herself up to speed on a range of issues important to her constituents, from mining and water quality to broadband infrastructure, to obscure but important acronyms like PILT and SRS (Payment In Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools), which together bring many tens of thousands of dollars to the county for road maintenance and schools. Her maps were used by representatives in Congress to help defeat an Ohio-based amendment to eliminate these monies, most of which go to western states.

Most recently, Padgett invited and shepherded Senator Mark Udall on a tour of Log Hill Mesa to see first hand how poorly served some areas of the county are by Internet providers. She identified systemic injustices and regulatory hurdles and urged the senator to support changes that would improve the county’s ability to attract business, to help level the economic-development playing field in an increasingly connected world.

These are not things a dilettante commissioner could take on. These are not challenges that can be solved by right intentions, or common sense alone. When you have a plumbing problem at home, you don’t call just any well-intentioned citizen, you call a plumber.

This is our form of government. It’s a representative government. We elect people willing and (ideally) able to do work that we cannot (or wouldn’t know to) do for ourselves. We haven’t the time, the patience, the policy wonkiness – the tolerance, frankly, for the messy business that is democracy. We trust them to do the homework and make decisions in our best interests, and for the common good.

When we elect a good one, one who is capable and hard working, and principled, we can consider ourselves lucky. And the system itself has a chance to work as intended, as envisioned by the Framers, who staked their revolution on representative government.

In this country we have citizen soldiers, citizen cops, citizen council and board members – citizen politicians. Neither the concept nor the word deserves knee-jerk condemnation.

Yet that’s what Jack Flowers’ sign signifies. That’s what some in this age of win-at-any-cost electioneering would have you think. Subliminally. At the level of your fears. At the level, not of your citizenship, but of your tribal identification.

It’s code. Citizen means Flowers. Politician means Padgett. Good. Bad. Republican. Democrat. Us. Them. You can’t get much more tribal than that.

It chaps my hide when otherwise innocent words are used, quite intentionally, to divide the electorate. This form of speech doesn’t illuminate. It darkens the day as I drive past. It doesn’t further the conversation; it attempts to end it. With a falsehood.

The Freedom of the Wheels

Posted in More Sport, Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on August 23, 2012

Son-in-law Adam sent an iPhone video the other day of his kids cycling around their street in Bend, Ore. Alex looked super comfortable without the training wheels. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and the training wheels were still on then. Now he’s spinning around curves and over bumps and up onto the sidewalk. He’ll be 4 in a month.

Lily is 2 and a quarter. It was good to see Alex braking and waiting patiently for his sister to turn her tricycle around before he squeezed by on the inside.

Adam had mastered the two-wheeler before his fourth birthday, too. He was a New England prodigy who went on to a sponsored career on the NORBA pro mountain bike circuit. He’s so comfortable on a bike you’d swear he could fall sleep up there. Or make the wheels tap dance. The first time Ellen and I met him, he arrived for dinner at one of Hanover’s tonier restaurants on his BMX bike. He was wearing a nice clean shirt.

He and Cloe met on bikes a year or so before our dinner date. They were both stopped at a stoplight in Hanover. Cloe was in her first year at Dartmouth medical school. Adam was out for a training ride. Cloe was training, too. She had done some expert-class racing in Boulder and had joined Dartmouth’s cycling team (which went on to win the national road-racing championship that year).

They nodded to one another. Adam bolted at the green, determined to outpace the girl up the first hill. Part way up he was succeeding when it struck him: “You moron,” he said to himself, “That was a cute girl. And you are doing your macho best to run away from her?”

He slowed down. The rest is history.

When the pro riders careen down Lizard Head Pass and through the streets of Telluride and Montrose this week, we will marvel at their speed, at the precision-cricket sounds of their machines, at the string-bean leanness of their muscles. We are not in their league. But we will understand completely the feeling they have. Riding a bike is about as close to a universal language as there is.

I remember the first skinny-tire bike my parents got me. It was a single-speed. I was seven. And I couldn’t get over the rush of wind, the effortless momentum when I got her up to speed.

Those distance-gobbling wheels gave me the freedom to ride to school by myself, across whole neighborhoods – an independent soul in second grade. Later, when I had three speeds, the world expanded exponentially. I could circumnavigate Balboa Island. Or take the ferry across to the peninsula, a spit of land we could see from our house but was many driving miles around the bay by car. On these excursions I was master of my fate. I could ride out one of the piers and watch fisherman casting bait between the screeching gulls. I could go the other way and find myself a chocolate-covered frozen banana. I could go wherever I wanted, see what I could see, and still be home for supper.

Ellen and I courted on bicycles on Long Island near the town where she grew up. In dripping early-summer humidity we coasted past the vast lawns of Jay Gatsby’s desire.

We were living in my VW van and were looking forward to riding around Martha’s Vineyard until, after a winey lunch, I backed into a pine tree and crunched our bikes on their rack.

In the 1980s, the mountain bike revolutionized where you could go on wheels. You didn’t need roads anymore. While Cloe and Cecily were learning the rolling balance on the dirt streets of Ridgway, I was following ditches and animal trails to the source of the town’s water supply, 10 miles up the headwaters of Beaver Creek.

Now a new generation is learning to weave and coast. Alex and Lily. (And Boden won’t be far behind.) Feeling the slingshot gravity of a banked turn. The satisfaction of an efficient uphill grind.

Cloe, too, is back into biking now that her work allows a bit of time. She had told me, during the bleakest years of her internship and residency, that the children and the time away from cycling had sapped her desire to ride. But now in Bend, with its buffed single track, the athlete in her has returned.

Adam reported last week that there is a section of trail near where they live that is somehow “wired” (using GPS?) to give riders their time and speed up a certain climb. Other riders who sign up have their times posted on line as well. Adam said Cloe’s competitive juices were flowing and that she had tallied three Queen of the Mountain scores.

He might still be able to best her time, but she’s recaptured that ageless pleasure in flying close to the ground.

To Dope or not to Dope: That Is the Question

Posted in More Sport, Watch columns by pshelton on August 18, 2012

Top-level road cycling cannot seem to escape the specter of doping.

Just last month, Luxemburg’s Frank Schleck was withdrawn by his team from the Tour de France after testing positive for Xipamide, a banned diuretic that can be used to help flush other banned substances from an athlete’s system.

And then, of course, there’s the seemingly endless drama of Lance Armstrong’s legal battle with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, USADA, which, depending on your perspective is either a persecution or a necessary catharsis for the sport.

Armstrong is retired. Schleck, along with his brother Andy, was due to race in this month’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge across the mountains of Colorado. Frank will not be making the trip; Andy will. (Andy inherited the Tour de France crown in 2010 when nominal winner Alberto Contador was stripped of the title for doping.)

There will be drug testing at the Pro Challenge. And there will be riders participating whose names are currently under drug-related clouds.

Race Director Jim Birrell said his organization “works closely with UCI (the International Cycling Union, the sport’s governing body) and, yes, every day we will be testing the General Classification (overall) leader, that day’s stage winner, and two other riders picked at random.”

Within an hour of the race finish each of these four will meet with the Doping Control Officer and be asked to give a urine or a blood sample. “You don’t know ahead of time which it will be,” Birrell said.

Neither do you know what substances doping control will be looking for. “They don’t tell you,” Birrell repeated. They don’t tell you, because, as Tom Murray, chair of the ethics panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency, told me, “The contest is more even now” between those who would cheat (and their doctors and chemists) and those who would catch them cheating. “USADA and WADA have changed the landscape,” Murray said. “They are making a difference. They have funding now to conduct research, but there’s still an edge for the outlaws.”

Why dope? Because given the intensely competitive nature of sport at the highest levels, and the very small differences in physical and mental ability among top athletes, a drug or a procedure that can improve your time by even 1 or 2 percent is an immense temptation.

Murray, who has been studying ethical issues around performance-enhancement for 30 years at the Hastings Center in New York, said, “Once you believe there is an effective drug, you have three choices.” One, you can compete at a disadvantage, trusting that your innate ability and work ethic will level the playing field. This works only rarely, with freakishly gifted individuals. Murray mentioned the hurdler Edwin Moses, whose legs were so long he only needed three strides between hurdles where everyone else took four. Two, you can decide not to dope and effectively give up any hope of winning the Tour de France. And three, you can join your fellows in chemical enhancement so that you at least have a chance to compete.

The UCI website lists a cabinet full of doping techniques. Near the top is “blood doping,” which “increases one’s red blood cell mass resulting in the transport of more oxygen to the muscles.” The preferred method of blood doping these days, the one that Lance Armstrong is charged with employing, is EPO, erythropoietin, known to the athletes as “Edgar Allen Poe.”  It’s a hormone that is produced naturally in the kidneys and acts in the bone marrow to stimulate red blood cell production. A racer who injects EPO risks thickening of the blood, heart disease, stroke, and cerebral or pulmonary embolism. But it can also increase his efficiency on the bike by 10-15 percent. A urine test for EPO was first used at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The UCI goes on to list the synthetic oxygen carrier HBOC, two types of blood transfusions, homologus (using someone else’s blood) and autologous (using one’s own stored blood). “A resurgence [in transfusions] is likely due to the introduction of efficient EPO detection methods,” the website says. There is currently no test for autologous blood transfusions, but WADA is working on one.

There is Human Growth Hormone, and testosterone, the latter known by the nickname “oil.” A big spike in testosterone level is likely to get you disqualified; it’s not subtle. Floyd Landis found that out at the Tour de France in 2006. Landis had had a very bad day in the mountains, all but dashing his hopes of replacing Armstrong as Tour champion. But somehow the very next day he mounted a superhuman effort, crushing his rivals by minutes and setting up his eventual triumph in Paris. As stage winner he knew he would be tested. For years, the disgraced American claimed the test result must have been caused by the whiskey he drank the night before, drowning his sorrows.

Landis eventually fessed up, though his armor-plated denial took years to erode. And he has come out publically saying Armstrong doped, too. The USADA case, which has yet to come to a hearing, claims to have testimony from 10 former teammates and associates of Armstrong’s from the U.S. Postal Service days. Four of those rumored to have testified will be at the Pro Challenge: Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriski. Leipheimer won the overall at last year’s inaugural Pro Cycling Challenge. Vande Velde came second. “Big George” Hincapie, who was a faithful domestique for Armstrong on all seven of the Texan’s Tour de France victories, has said that at age 39 he will retire at the end of the year. “60 Minutes” quoted Hincapie as saying he and Armstrong supplied one another with performance enhancing drugs. Hincapie says he never spoke with “60 Minutes” and these days slides around questions from the press with amiable but vague statements about “loyalty.”

The Lance Armstrong question – whether or not USADA should pursue a cancer-survivor hero whose alleged crimes are well in the past – has divided the cycling community. Some say, leave Lance be; draw a line through the past and try to chart a fairer future. Others say, only ripping the bandage from the wound will allow ultimate healing.

Anti-Lance factions are angered by his stonewalling. “Lance redefines innocence as simply not having been caught,” writes Edward Pickering, a cycling blogger. He supports the USADA investigation. “Cycling has its first chance in a generation to come to terms with its past,” he writes.

Tom Murray, the ethicist, thinks the tide is shifting. Is doping control doomed to failure? “No,” he told me. “Somebody will try to cheat. It will never be 100 percent. But the tide will shift [toward cleaner competition]. That’s a realistic hope.”

He said the Armstrong case “makes me think of South Africa with its truth and reconciliation commissions. Bad things were done, horrible things that needed to come to light. This [drugs in cycling] is not horrible by comparison. But it would be wonderful to rip the Band-Aid off the wound; everybody tell the truth. If Lance were to tell everything he knows, and come to a kind of plea bargain, maybe get to keep some of his titles . . . I would certainly welcome that. It’s important to get the truth out.”


Posted in Road Trips West, Watch columns by pshelton on August 16, 2012

The long drive back to Colorado last week on U.S. 6 & 50 seemed extra desolate because we had just deposited our daughter and grandson at their new digs in Bishop, Calif., 800 lonely miles from us at Boulder Rock.

Our reluctance to leave them manifested in unsubtle ways. Ellen “lost” her sunglasses, delaying our departure, and I threw my back out (I really did) – trying to dust some crumbs off a chair – making it “hard” for me to drive us away.

But drive we did, and our route across the Great Basin, through a string of familiar small towns, got us thinking about their fates. Why had some withered to semi-ghost towns while others seemed to be doing better? And why does one place in the middle of Utah appear as if from an episode from The Twilight Zone, or maybe Andy Griffith’s Mayberry?

Just shy of the Nevada border, in a sweeping alluvial basin at the base of Boundary Peak, Benton Station, née Benton Hot Springs, requires a slowdown to 45 mph, but there is hardly reason. The census says the population is 280. But there is nothing there save a few cottonwoods and an abandoned gas station. West of the intersection with Route 120 sits what’s left of the old gold and silver boomtown. We stopped in one time to check out the only occupied structure, a hot-springs B&B. Sprinklers were shooting hot water across the lawn. The proprietress was friendly, but it was the wrong time of day to take a room, and we were close enough to our destination not to need to.

Maybe that was part of Benton’s demise, we guessed: the railroad is gone; the highways are too good now, and cars too fast. What was once a logical stop between Bodie and Bishop is not even a quarter tank away from more obvious destinations.

Next came Tonopah, where we stopped for breakfast. Tonopah’s stated population is 2,478, down about 200 from a decade ago and down many thousands from its heyday as a silver camp in the early 1900s. The kid who was trying to work the cash register at Subway apologized: “Morning’s not my thing,” he said, groggy.

The whole town seems to be asleep atop its dirt-dry hill. Untreated mine tailings press in from all sides. The last big employer, the Department of Energy’s Tonopah Test Range, known as Area 52, where they used to test the reliability of aging nuclear warheads, is closed. Howard Hughes married Jean Peters in Tonopah, but that was a long time ago.

Another 150 miles along, Ely, Nev., is doing somewhat better. Our favorite restaurant, the Red Apple, was shuttered, for sale. And the Hotel Nevada, with its stuffed rattlesnakes in the lobby, its dusty prospector dioramas and singing slot machines and cigarette smoke, only seem more desperate in midday.

But Ely does have an operating gold mine nearby. Cyanide heap leach. Tailings piles a mile long. On the way west we had stopped for breakfast at the Silver State Café, and our neighbors in the turquoise vinyl booths drove new pickups and looked like they might be mine engineers.

Approaching Delta, Utah, an old pickup pulled out behind us. In the mirror I saw it was filled with teenage boys, three in the front, an undetermined number in back, at least one of them sitting up on the side rail. Bare, skinny arms. Short hair. Rambunctious smiles.

The gas was cheap, $3.39/gallon versus the $4.09 in California. Downtown was neat as a pin, the streets so wide (by Brigham Young’s order) you could turn an eight-horse wagon around without having to back up.

Delta is surrounded by corn eight feet tall and green as Ireland. They’re going to get good prices this year, we thought, given the shriveling heat wave in the Midwest.

Green River, population 973, is not green. Except for the melon patches down by the river. We stopped to get a couple of cantaloupes from Dunham’s stand, and for the juicy hamburgers at Ray’s Tavern, just about the only place open on a main street ravaged by abandonment. First the railroad abandoned them, in 1892, when they moved their operations up to Helper, Utah. Then the US Air Force came and went with its missile launch site that closed down in 1973. Then Interstate 70 bypassed the old downtown, inspiring truck stops at either off ramp, but little else. It now seems as if the melons and the river-running crowd are the only things keeping the place alive.

Nancy Dunham, 77, has hopes for a live-music series that could draw folks from Salt Lake City, the way bluegrass and jazz bring visitors to Telluride. But, standing in the wind and dust, it seems like a long shot.

Then there is the hope generated by plans for two nuclear reactors northwest of town. But they are by no means certain. And a long way off at any rate. For now, you’ve got your Melon Days in September and the crowning of the Melon Queen.

Ellen and I are going to get to know these places better in the coming years, as we crisscross “The Loneliest Road in America” to watch our grandchildren grow.

A Modest Proposal for Michael Phelps

Posted in Olympic Games, Uncategorized, Watch columns by pshelton on August 12, 2012

When Tyler Clary talked that smack around the time of the Olympic trials, about Michael Phelps not working his hardest, and coasting on his talent, I just had to laugh. What does Tyler Clary know? And look at Michael now: 18 gold medals. I mean, come on!

I like to think Michael and I bonded in 04, before he became famous, before he won his first six golds in Athens. And yes, I was the one who took that picture of Michael huffing on a bong after Beijing.

I sold it for some sweet moolah to that English tabloid. But I feel bad about it, I really do. I didn’t mean for Michael to get in trouble. I just wanted to encourage him to follow through on that deal we talked about the time he visited my grow-op out in Mendocino. He was just 19; he didn’t have the big sponsorships he has now: Visa, Subway, Nike, AT&T. And, of course, he hadn’t yet discovered his mystical connection to the dolphins.

I told him I was willing to take a chance on him. If he would be spokesperson for my Mendo Medicinal, it’d be a win-win for everybody. I’d supply him with bud. My licensed, legal-in-the-state-of-California grow-op would prosper. And the acceptance of herb nationwide would get a boost. He seemed enthused at the time.

Here’s what happened that day. We were sitting on the beach out by Gualala, and Michael’s telling me about all the pressure on him to be perfect. He was just a kid, you know, but the pressure was huge, from his coaches, from his mom, and already from the media. He swam five hours a day, every frickin’ day. Fifty miles a week. Talk about chlorine brain. He barely had a life, you know? Everybody telling him he was blessed with the perfect swimmer’s body, the biggest flipper feet and the hugest lungs. They expected so much. And he wanted it, too. But he didn’t know what it was.

So I fire up the ole bong and pass it over. He takes a drag, and I mean he drains the whole bowl. And then he holds it in for I don’t know how long. After about 30 seconds I bust out laughing, and he’s still going strong. Like it was nothing, like he could hold his breath forever. Like he was Superman, or a fish or something. Which he was, I guess. Sort of. In the pool.

Anyway, he does finally exhale about five minutes later. And he’s got this little smile on his lips, and we pound a couple of PBRs and some chips. And then he stands up and rips off his shirt and his jeans and starts into the shore break. I followed the best I could but, you know, he’s Michael Phelps. And pretty soon we’re bobbing out beyond the break, laughing and looking at the sunlight sparkling off the water.

And then we see fins.

At first I thought, Shark!, and my limbs made involuntary moves toward the beach. But Michael stroked straight out toward them with those pelican arms of his. And like that he was in with them – dolphins – arching their backs, diving and leaping over one another, ripping around. And then they disappear. All of ‘em. Michael too.

And I’m trippin’ over rocks working my way back in, and looking out to sea at the same time and just tongue-tied, you know. I mean, what was I going to do, call for help? There was nobody for miles. And I’m sitting there shivering, hugging my knees, thinking this didn’t just happen, when way off I see this clean wind-milling of arms. And it’s Michael, alone, just a speck at first but comin’ fast, cruising back in.

“They know,” he said when he was finally sitting beside me in the sand. “They showed me. You have to embrace the water.” And that’s when I figured I could hitch my water pipe to this kid’s wagon, as it were.

So, Michael, if you’re reading this, now that you’re a retired gazillionaire at 27, I’m sorry about the tabloids, man. No harm intended. I understand you had to say what you said, that it was just a youthful indiscretion and that you promise your sponsors and fans that you won’t do it ever again. You had to say that. You were on the frickin’ corn flakes box. I know that. But I was hoping maybe now we could rekindle our friendship. You know, hang out, fire one up, maybe go for a swim.

You could go in a different direction, sponsorship-wise. Instead of Speedo, see, you could go with Quicksilver, or Da Kine board shorts. And instead of corn flakes you could lend your name to a granola. And maybe to one of my premium sensimillas? See what I’m sayin’?

You could be the man, Michael, the truth-telling man. Our last three Presidents admitted to smoking pot. Half the people on the planet smoke weed. They say it isn’t a performance-enhancing drug. But you know better. You and the dolphins.

Medal Count Fever: An Olympic History

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on August 3, 2012

I still get a patriotic tingle when I look at the Olympic medal count. The emotion runs deep, like rock-and-roll, like “The Silent Service.”

As I write on Monday, Day 3 of the London Games, China and the U.S. each have 17 medals, but the Reds (sorry, old habit) have more golds than we do: 9 to 5.

It used to be the Russians we were up against, or rather the Soviet Union. You see, the roots of the obsession go back to the Cold War. They should have been expurgated – I thought they would have been erased completely by the injustices of Vietnam and the shame of Bush II – but apparently it’s still there, this identification with a national sporting “we.”

As a kid in the 1960s, it was war. The chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had the term American exceptionalism come to roost with conservatives as a way to justify war: We do it because of America’s special mission (sacred even) to lead the world to liberty and democracy.

Back then, it was purely us versus them, bombast and bomb shelters, Ralph Boston versus Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, John Thomas versus Valeriy Brumel. The 1960 Games, in Rome, were the first ones we watched on TV. That summer the Soviets crushed us 103-71 and 43-34 in gold medals. Long jumper Boston soared past his pale Soviet rival, as did Thomas in the high jump. But Soviet giantess Tamara Press put the shot way farther than our girl Earlene Brown.

We lost the medal race in boxing 4-5, but made up for it when Cassius Clay took the heavyweight gold. In gymnastics, we got skunked: the Soviets won every available medal but three; we took exactly none to their 26. We turned the tables in swimming (bourgeois capitalists have way more swimming pools?), winning the medal war 15-0. Wrestling produced a funny result. (I wasn’t aware of this at the time; only Wikipedia reveals it now.) The Soviets took all three Greco-Roman golds; the freedom-loving Americans took all three in Freestyle.

The Games on either side of 1960 were a disappointment for red-white-and-blue boys like me. In 1956, we got handled, 98-74 by the state-sponsored, plucked-from-the-cradle iron men and women with CCCP on their shirts. In Tokyo in 1964 the final tally was closer, but we still lost 96-90.

1968 brought big changes, in me and in the Olympics. I was 19, just two years away from the end of all college deferments and the waiting draft. Civil rights and Vietnam were turning my assumptions about the country inside out. In Mexico City a transcendent event was overshadowed by a courageous political one.

I competed in the long jump in high school, so when Bob Beamon, on his first attempt, uncorked a leap that was almost two feet longer than anything in history, extending the world record to 29’ 21/2” (a mark that stood for 23 years), I cheered in near disbelief. Then came the men’s 200 meters and the gold and bronze performances of Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It wasn’t the race itself that upended the Olympics’ (supposed) apolitical innocence, it was their raised-fist black power salute during the national anthem that rocked the world. They were, of course, banned immediately from the village, the team, and the Olympic movement.

That’s when things began to fall apart. Munich in 1972: The massacre of 11 Israelis by a Palestinian terrorist group dominated the news. That was also the Games when, out of nowhere, suspiciously masculine East German women crushed everybody in swimming.

In 1980, we boycotted the Moscow summer Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So those medal numbers don’t count. Neither, then, should the numbers from Los Angeles in 1984, when the Soviets returned the favor. L.A. was the first tasteless, over-the-top capitalist Games, during which McDonalds’ “When the U.S. Wins, You Win” campaign could net you a free Big Mac.

No one with blood in his veins could have resisted the “Miracle On Ice.” When a bunch of scrappy U.S. college boys beat the Soviet Red Army pros in ice hockey in 1980, that was indeed a miracle. But not long afterward Ronald Reagan usurped the symbolism to declare an end to the national nightmare of Vietnam and the return of American pride, American exceptionalism. The trouble was, as a Californian who had suffered through his governorship, I knew him to be a bully, a genial-sounding liar. We purposely didn’t own a television then. I couldn’t look. Blind patriotism, Olympic or otherwise, had become anathema.

The nadir came in 2004. The summer Games were in Athens. George Bush was about to be reelected. The U.S. had decided on a path of preemptive war, torture, and domestic wiretapping. On a trip to Chile that summer I was, like the Dixie Chicks, embarrassed to be an American. A sympathetic stranger put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I am so sorry.”

But the Olympics that year somehow transfigured both the world and my mood. Michael Phelps won his first eight medals, six of them gold. The U.S. women’s 4×200 swim team eclipsed, finally, the world record set by those East Germans. In a measure of justice the U.S. men’s basketball team lost for the first time since NBA players had been allowed to participate.

And finally, in 2004 China won its first-ever gold medal in track and field, when the automatic gazelle Liu Xiang took the 110m hurdles, foreshadowing a dominance to come.

But, crucially, we won the medal count, 102 to 63, over the Red Chinese.