My friends are often surprised to learn that I love watching sports on television. I can’t blame them. I’m pretty aggressively nonathletic. My idea of exercise is biking to the Farmer’s Market. My notion of a competitive good time is kicking your butt in Scrabble.
But I do love watching sports, and not just the conventionally “girly” stuff like figure skating and gymnastics, although I enjoy those too. I love the World Series. I love the Olympics, winter and summer. I love the World Cup. This summer I’ve squandered hours of what was supposed to be prime a.m. writing time watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup with my family.
This event has thrilled, moved, engaged, and challenged me. How? Well, let me count the ways.
First, it has delighted me as a woman and as a feminist. I came of age before Title IX started making a real difference in women’s athletics in the U.S., and part of me must still be stuck in the old days because I can’t quite get over how big a deal women’s soccer has become. Not only is the game every bit as fast-paced, strategic, and rough-and-tumble as the men’s game, but the fans—shown in camera pans of the sold-out stadiums or cutaways to scenes in sports bars or military outposts—include many hugely enthusiastic men. This is something to celebrate.
I’ve also enjoyed the games as an American. I’m not a very patriotic person. There are many things about being an American and living in the U.S. for which I’m grateful, of course, but almost as many that I deplore. My Americanism, whatever that means, is, as it is for most Americans, simply an accident of birth. I’m generally suspicious of feelings of pride that emanate solely from such accidents. Nationalism of any stripe tends to alarm me. Still, I’ve cheered myself hoarse for Team USA. Why? Because I’m an American. No other reason. When Abby Wambach headed in that game-saving goal in minute 122 of the quarterfinal against Brazil, I was—well, I was really glad I wasn’t Brazilian. As conflicted as it is, my status as an American citizen meant I got to indulge in the euphoria of that moment.
But then there’s Nadeshiko Japan, the Japanese national women’s team, who have amazed the world by knocking out the host nation team in the quarterfinal then besting Sweden in the semi. This despite being much smaller physically than their opponents and having had their lives and practice schedules and resources upended by the devastating Sendai earthquake and tsunami in March. The heart, determination, and teamwork they’ve displayed have won them supporters all over the world.
My admiration for this team is about more than that, however. It’s about ethnic and cultural connection. And yes, I’m every bit as wary of ethnic pride as I am of national pride. But I can’t help myself: I love this team because they’re Japanese and I’m Japanese. (Just how Japanese am I? Well, that could easily occupy another blog post. Let’s just stipulate for now that I’m Japanese enough reasonably to feel some kinship with the country and its people.)
I love this team because they look a bit like me (or like I did 15 to 25 years ago). This may be a shallow reason to support something, but I suspect it’s a common-enough human response. When I look at the Japanese players, especially some of the shorter ones, I think, “Wow, they’re no bigger than I am! Maybe I could have played soccer.” Not one person on the U.S. team inspires this reaction in me. They seem more Olympian (you know, as in from Mount Olympus) and therefore, more remote.
I also love Nadeshiko Japan’s precision teamwork, which seems wonderfully Japanese, but even more their forcefulness on the field, which is quite unlike the demure notion of Japanese femininity I found so oppressive when I lived there in my early 20s. And I love them because—this is politically incorrect, but I’m going to say it anyway—damn, if there isn’t something gratifying about watching diminutive Asian women take on big, mostly white women and win.
So where does that leave me on Sunday morning, when the U.S. meets Japan in the final? I’m really, really torn. The rest of my family is rooting for the U.S., who are heavily favored to win. (So were the Germans and the Swedes, of course.) One aspect of my identity—American or Japanese—will be happy on Sunday; the other will be disappointed. Fortunately, the woman and the feminist in me will be watching too, and they are going to be thrilled and entertained.