A Little Geography Lesson and the Olympics

I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard the news reporter happily state on air that the first Olympics in Latin America were about to get underway. I chalked it up as just another graduate of US geography lessons. However, as the Olympics played on, I kept hearing statements on the news media about how this is the first developing country to hold the Olympics and how that is different from the previous “first-world,” or developed countries cities that hosted the Olympics. It is as if US citizens have amnesia about certain worldwide events.

It all came to a head for me when a reader sent me an email asking me why I overused the words “US citizen” when I could simply say “American” when writing about US citizens. Although I have addressed this issue before I think it is time for another geography lesson and an opportunity to remind everyone about the 1968 Olympics that produced many firsts.

First, let’s get the geography lesson out of the way. “Americais a continent. It is not a country. The USA is short for the United States of America. In other words, the United States is a union of individual states acting under the authority of a central federal government that happens to occupy a large part of the American continent. But it is not “America” and it is inappropriate to steal, yes, steal the word “America” for its sole use.

No, I am not the only one, nor am I the first to complain about the misuse of the term “America” to refer to the United States. Most citizens of the rest of the Americas would likely tell you the same thing. This has been an ongoing debate since the 1800’s. In 1947, Henry Mencken wrote in Names for Americans that “the right of Americans to be so called (American) is frequently challenged, especially in Latin-America.”


Take a look at the map above. As you can clearly see, the United States is a country in the continent of the Americas. There are three subdivisions to the continent; North America, Central America and South America. And yes, much to the chagrin of some you, México is in North America, along with the United States of America and Canada, hence NAFTA. Furthermore, Central America is still being debated as a proper subdivision with many preferring North America and South America with the demarcation in Panama.

This brings us to the notion of the 2016 Olympics and Brazil’s “firsts.”

The United States has hosted four Olympics. They were in 1904 (St. Louis), 1932 (Los Angeles), 1984 (Los Angeles) and 1996 (Atlanta). Brazil is the first South American country to host the Olympics. However, Mexico hosted the Olympics in 1968. These are the only three countries in the Americas to host the Olympics.

The 1968 Olympics in Mexico are notable for many firsts. These are:

1. The Mexico City Olympics was the first Olympics hosted in Latin America and Mexico is only one of three countries in the Americas to host the Olympics. The other are the United States and now Brazil.
2. The first woman to light the Olympic torch to start the Games was Mexican track and field athlete, Norma Enriqueta Basilio, who competed in the 80 meter hurdles. Basilio lit the Olympic torch at the Mexico City Olympics of 1968.
3. The 1968 Olympics were the first Olympics to use the all-weather track, Tartan, for the running events. Previous Olympic track and field tracks used cinder for the running events.
4. US Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos brought international attention to the issues of racism and civil rights in the United States by raising black-gloved fists (Black Power Salute) during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter race.
5. The 1968 Olympics was the first time “doping” or drug enhancements tests were conducted on athletes competing in the Olympics.
6. The 1968 Olympics is the first-time the events, and the ceremonies, were transmitted on color televisions.

As you can see, the 1968 Olympics in Mexico not only brought attention to the US civil rights movements, and their consequences – Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the US team and Australian Peter Norman, who took second was banned from the Australian team for the rest of his life – but it was also home to many important “firsts” in Olympic competitions.

I have been told to “deal with it” numerous times before so I’m sure some of you will post similar comments when it comes to the misuse of the term “America”. Whether I deal with it or not won’t change the fact that it will continue to irk me every time I hear it because it goes to a deeper problem that was recently defined as “American exceptionalism,” but is in effect colonialism wrapped in a cloak of politically correct language.

In Monday’s edition I will use a recent controversy to illustrate why “American exceptionalism” has created a nation centered unto itself oblivious to the realities of the rest of the world.

So get the pitchforks out and tell me to go back to my country!