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The Olympic guide to trash-talking

It’s a risky endeavor on the way to gold and glory, but it can be done. (Helps to be a white athlete too.)

If there were medals for trash-talking, the United States would not only sweep but set world records in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Talking trash is encoded in American sports’ DNA. Not just in the arena, trash-talking is part and parcel of every facet of athletic competition, especially in the Olympics.

And yet there are those who consistently wag their collective fingers at trash-talkers. Waxing nostalgic on a more respectful sporting era, the endless chatter focuses on how trash-talking is unsportsmanlike, disrespectful, bad for sports, bad for our children and antithetical to the values, mission, and spirit of competition.

That’s because the privilege to talk trash is not afforded to every athlete equally. In the mouths of black athletes, smack talk is linked somehow to the deleterious effects of the hip-hop generation and presented as evidence of unsportsmanlike conduct that spits in the eye of tradition — a pollutant destroying the very fabric of sports.

Noting that black athletes have always been expected to “show deference,” Ben Carrington, a sociologist of sport from University of Texas, wrote to The Undefeated about the racial double standards of trash-talking. “White athletes have always had a greater scope to express themselves in ways that challenge accepted and expected norms of behavior. If a white athlete speaks out, they are showing ‘character’ and a ‘will to win.’ ” But “if a black athlete speaks out, they are told to ‘shut up and play the game’ and accused of being disrespectful.”

Before the Olympics had even started, Coach Mike Krzyzewski — warned his team about trash-talking and the importance of representing the nation properly. Following a failed 360 dunk from DeMar DeRozan, the Duke University coach made his displeasure clear: “We had a little bit too much fun out there tonight. We have to tone that down a little bit.”

This is nothing new. In 1994, the World Championship basketball team was widely criticized in the media for their trash talk and cockiness. No celebrations of their passion for the game, no praise for how their dominance on the floor and at the podium represented a victory for the United States.

During the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, America’s non-dream teams were chastised for their poor play resulting from their cockiness, lack of humility, and their focus on talking trash and embarrassing opponents rather than winning.

U.S. sprinters have also faced scorn throughout decades for their brashness, for their purported disrespect of their opponents and the Olympic mission. The 2000 4 x 100-meter men’s relay squad was widely criticized for its excessive taunts, arrogance, and disregard for its opponents. If this history teaches us anything, any trash talk at Maracana Stadium over the next week will be met with outrage and finger-wagging.

Enter Jamaican runner Usain Bolt, who is without question one of the greatest athletes. Unlike other sports, which are as much about access and privilege (two words: equestrian and swimming) as talent and excellence, Bolt has dominated a truly global sport for more than 10 years.

Before the race, he predicted the completion of his “triple-triple” on his way to rarefied status of boxer Muhammad Ali and Brazilian soccer great Pele, and a silencing of his critics:

“I think they have not learned over the years that the more you talk, the more I will want to beat you,” Bolt announced. “It’s one of those things, but I’m looking forward to it, should be exciting and they will feel my full wrath as always.”

Following a dominating gold medal performance on Sunday, he was yet again criticized for his bravado, attitude, and disposition. Throughout social media and beyond, Bolt was described as cocky, arrogant, lacking humility, and otherwise unlikable.

While he has receipts for days, people continue to put a footnote or an asterisk on his greatness, bemoaning why he cannot just let his victories speak for themselves. Unlike Lilly King, his swagger isn’t imagined as #BlackJoy; unlike Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, his looks across the track are not a sign of confidence, but evidence that he is neither humble nor respectful of the Olympic mission. Just like Gabby Douglas, who has been widely criticized for not smiling enough, Bolt’s emotions, his confident and joyous smile, compel debate, scrutiny, and criticism.

Even those who celebrate his charisma, showmanship, and tongue-wagging as part of his brand leave little room for seeing Bolt as a fierce competitor who loves to win, to crush his opponents and their fans in his wake.

But Phelps, the winningest Olympian in the history of all Olympians dating to ancient Greece, can talk smack, dole out glares of death and announce his greatness with a single finger following every victory.

Phelps even spent his time away from swimming reminding the world that he was the greatest, describing his one-time competitors as “really not that fast.” They were not on his level; should he ever come back, and properly train, they had best watch out.

South Africa’s Chad Le Clos, who defeated Phelps at the 2012 Olympics, expressed dismay at the lack of respect from his one-time idol: “I just can’t wait until I race him. I just did a time that he hasn’t done in four years, so he can keep quiet now.”

Le Clos had grown tired of the excuses, and the trash talk: “I’m just very happy that he’s back to his good form, so he can’t come out and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t been training,’ or all that rubbish that he’s been talking.”

The rivalry, the back-and-forth, and the trash talk would continue over the first week in Rio de Janeiro, which included Le Clos shadowboxing, the now memed-to-death stare, lots of finger-wagging and ended with a Phelps victory in the 200-meter butterfly.

Following the win, which saw Le Clos finish fourth, Phelps urged the crowd to celebrate his dominance. “ ‘He cupped and flexed his fingers, making the universal gesture for ‘bring it on,’ wrote Justin Peters. “Then, licking his lips, he raised his index finger: the universal gesture for ‘I’m No. 1.’ ” Can I get a gold medal with a side of trash talk, followed by an aperitif of cockiness?

Yet, that wasn’t the narrative that emerged from the American media. Celebrating Phelps for letting his swimming do the talking, for shutting Le Clos up, and for letting him and others know that there are consequences for talking trash, it was clear that not all trash-talking is created equal. Imaging Phelps as an innocent victim of Le Clos’ unrelenting trash talk, Phelps didn’t just win a gold medal, but taught Le Clos a lesson.

That gave Phelps, the greatest swimmer in history, an unmatched champion, the license to talk smack, without threat to his title as a “humble superstar.”

Le Clos, as unsympathetic foe (his own story and both his parents dealing with cancer are rarely ever mentioned) was not allowed verbal barbs. His trash talk indicated cockiness and lack of respect for the Olympic ideal (Phelps) and deserving of a beatdown in the pool and a rhetorical one to boot. And Phelps delivered.

King came to win gold in Rio and talk trash as well. Before the 100-meter finals started, King wagged her finger at Yulia Efimova, who had twice been suspended for doping. Wagging in both disgust and as a reminder that she was coming for Efimova, King’s trash-talking was widely celebrated as that of a righteous freedom fighter battling the evil empire, empowering her to wag her finger multiple times, celebrate her victory excessively, slap the water, and refuse to shake her opponent’s hand.

Heralded as “the perfect Olympian” for her ethical and moral trash talk, King explained the shared message in her victory and her statements: “We can still compete clean and do well at the Olympic Games, and, and that’s how it should be.”

Whereas King found celebration for her brash trash-talking that looked to some more like bullying, the U.S. men’s basketball team and sprinters, who are disproportionately African-American, have been told over and over to shut up and WIN.

The Olympics is all about trash-talking; the medal count is the ultimate expression of bravado, a public pronouncement that my country is better than yours. “The Olympics is a jamboree of unabashed nationalism rather than a true celebration of our common humanity,” noted Carrington.

While not alone, “American patriotism is a form of national trash-talking. American hubris tends to limit the American sporting imagination to appreciate and respect athletic feats by those not American.”

And to appreciate the athletes’ trash talk. But only, that is, if the RIGHT athlete in the RIGHT sport at the RIGHT time under the exact RIGHT circumstances brings the competitive and rhetorical heat.

David J. Leonard is a professor at Washington State University. He is the author of After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness and coeditor of Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports.