I ALMOST TURNED the television off. I had watched the Women's Super-G competition in the Winter Olympics on Wednesday and seen Picabo Street's improbable first-place finish. I had seen her calling her mother with the news.
However, I stayed on to see the medal ceremony after the commercial break. There on the stand, Street cried, which was touching but not unusual. Winners often cry. But then they played the national anthem and, amazingly, she began to sing. She didn't just stumble along, catching up as she went. She didn't just mouth the words. She sang it all, start to finish, as loud as she could.I consider myself an expert on the national anthem. I get to hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" at least 100 times a year, in person. I've been at sporting events in which, Boyz II Men, Diana Ross, Martina McBride, Susan Anton, Sawyer Brown, Gladys Knight and the cast of "Phantom of the Opera" sang. All delivered stirring renditions.
But in most cases it ends up coming off like a formality nonetheless, a meaningless ritual. It has become standard procedure for someone in the crowd to shout "Play ball!" or "Go, Jazz!" before the final note has sounded, drawing laughs and smirks.
In recent years, the singing of the national anthem has seemed an annoyance to many athletes. They rock back and forth, trying to keep their legs warm while the anthem is sung. They chew gum and sometimes talk to one another. Only too often players slouch or check out the crowd, paying no attention whatsoever to the words of the song.
Two years ago, when Mahmood Abdul-Rauf was with the Denver Nuggets, he refused to stand up during the anthem, saying it was against his religion. Others of his faith, such as Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon, noted that refusing to respect a country isn't part of the religion.
But it isn't merely athletes and fans who have stopped respecting the anthem. Even the musicians sometimes show disregard. Too often the song has become a forum for experimentation. I was at the NBA Finals in 1996 when Kenny G held the high note on the saxophone for well over a minute. He wasn't showing patriotism, he was showing he could hold a double high-C long enough to make people laugh. Then there was the night in San Diego when Roseanne screeched the anthem and scratched her crotch for emphasis.
As the Chicago Bulls' Steve Kerr pointed out, "At some point, Kenny G has to stop blowing his horn. Gee, maybe next time they can get Kenny G and Roseanne together and they can make a complete mockery of the national anthem."
I was in Tokyo in 1990 when the Jazz played the Phoenix Suns, and one American singer put so much personal interpretation into the anthem that it was unrecognizable. He could have been singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," but he could just as well have been singing "Stairway to Heaven." He kept repeating verses and scooping notes. He so slaughtered the song that for the second game, a recorded anthem was used.
I have seen singers forget the words and laugh as they did so.
But in singing the anthem this week, Street taught people all over the world that there is still a way to pay homage to your country, without shame or reservation. It wasn't grandstanding so she could reel in more endorsements. It was a show of respect for the nation that made it possible for her to compete. She would expect no less from the athletes from Canada, Australia, Nigeria or China.
Street's emotional display was more touching than when Michael Jordan had tears streaming down his cheeks after winning his first NBA championship trophy. That was weeping with relief. True, Street's tears after finishing the race were a show of relief and pride. But the singing of the anthem was a show of gratitude.
True patriotism isn't simply a jingoistic way of taunting the opposition. As stirring as was the sight of American hockey players in 1980, skating around the rink with flags draped around their shoulders, or Bruce Jenner, parading around the track with a flag in his hand, Street's reaction was different and unrehearsed.
If there is an image I will remember of the 1998 Winter Games, it won't be of someone flashing across the finish line. It won't be the commercials, the lighting of the flame or the closing ceremonies. It won't even be the tears on the victory stand. It will be the memory of Picabo Street, singing the words to the anthem, loud and long, never missing a note.