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Stop Pretending You’re Rooting for the Underdog at the Olympics

Getty Images
Getty Images

Americans love to love an underdog — or so we love to say. The little guy, the unlikely contender, the one nobody believed in: That’s who the USA throws its weight behind.

Except … maybe not really. Consider who you’ve been rooting for since the Olympics began last week. Do their names rhyme with Timone Piles? Bichael Yelps? The United States’ much-beloved, already-decorated, heavily favored contenders — let’s call them the Sure Things — have monopolized television coverage of the Rio games. They’ve dominated social media. According to my completely invented and extremely unscientific analysis — what I like to refer to as the Etsy Index — they are winning the hearts and minds of our nation. Simone Biles has 33 listings on the site — 33 different times she’s inspired someone to sit down and craft, crocheting dolls and spray-painting portraits and etching color-your-own pages. There are 60-something for Michael Phelps; a bit fewer for Aly Raisman. Gabby Douglas will tell you what champions are made of from every wall of your home, if you’re so inclined.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s joy in certainty. That everyone expected the Sure Things to triumph has made their early, dazzling success no less impressive. Here is Phelps in his fifth Olympics, reclaiming the 200-meter butterfly from Chad le Clos, who served him a rare defeat in 2012. This is Biles’s first Olympics, sure, but the 10-time World Championship gold medalist was widely heralded as a contender for the title of best-ever gymnast entering the games. Phelps and Biles have done exactly what they said they were going to: march right into the Maracanã and start demanding gold. The same holds true for some team sports: With both the men’s (14 Olympic gold medals) and women’s basketball teams (seven gold medals, including the last five straight), the actual sport has become almost secondary — the main attraction is the sport of beating other nations into the ground. We know what we’re going to get. We tune in. We almost always get it.

There’s nothing wrong with rooting along: Phelps and Biles are historic greats who will go down as legends; years from now, these are the athletes we will tell people we watched live (or, well, close to live). We are witnessing the golden age of both Team USA swimming and women’s gymnastics, and it’s only right that we savor and celebrate it. Having proper warning doesn’t make the sight of Raisman fluttering toward the rafters any less stunning, or diminish the magic the Sure Things have had to deploy to be not only great, but reliably great.

But let’s not tell ourselves that we’re rooting for underdogs, or especially — even in a games that’s been derided for introducing spoilers to Olympic viewership — for surprises. Is it any coincidence that Justin Gatlin, who hasn’t won Olympic gold since 2004, has an Etsy Index score of zero? (Usain Bolt’s Etsy Index: 33.)

So let’s consider giving some love to the actual underdogs. Gatlin — who, to be fair, could only ever be considered an underdog by Team USA’s preposterous standards — has his first race this Sunday. You could do worse than pulling for an actual surprise — or at least typing up a commemorative quote and taping it to your wall.