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U.S rubs it in _ the wrong place

I am watching the Olympic Games on NBC and I am gagging. It is not the oppressive commercialism. I can understand that. NBC paid $456-million for the rights and has to make it back.

Nor is it NBC's turning every race, every performance, every personal profile into a mawkish music video. I can almost understand that. American audiences will no longer tolerate the staccato rhythms, the natural delays of a real-time track meet. They demand the Hallmark package, the synthetic symphonic emotion prompted by gauzy video and a lugubrious Crimson Tide soundtrack.

What is it then? The unbearable, indeed shameful, chauvinism of the coverage. For every event the only important questions are: How are the Americans doing, and if they're not on their way to gold, why are they not doing better?

The nadir (I hope) was reached by Day Four during the women's team gymnastics competition, won by the Americans. It was a nearly all-American show. The high-decibel cheerleading of the experts in the booth was relentless, interrupted only for the occasional announcement of the welcome news that some East European type (Russian, Ukrainian or Romanian) had fallen off the high bar or otherwise disgraced herself, thus making it easier for our charming little girls to win it all.

You'd be watching your fifth American doing her floor exercise and, if the camera angle was such, you might accidentally catch a Russian in the distance doing a flip on the balance beam. But if the flip failed and the Russian fell off and landed on her bottom, you could be sure NBC would treat you to a full replay of the lucky event as soon as our star-spangled mite was done.

I can't remember ever before feeling pro-Russian. Yet for this group of Russian athletes _ gamely battling to maintain their dominance after losing an empire (the Ukrainians were now their opponents!) and most of their funding _ it was hard not to feel sympathetic.

Olympics carry heavy symbolism. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 foreshadowed the rise of Nazi Germany. The 1960 (Rome), 1964 (Tokyo), and 1972 (Munich) Games announced sequential reconciliation with the Axis powers of World War II. The 1996 Atlanta Games are perfectly timed to highlight the apogee of American power in the world.

Since the fall of the Soviet empire much has been written about how the bipolar Cold War world has given way to a multipolar world with many comparable centers of power. This is errant nonsense. Never in the last 500 years has there been a greater gap between the No. 1 power and the rest of the world.

And not just militarily. In practically every human enterprise _ finance and fashion, technology and medicine, culture and communication _ we lead. Has any nation been simultaneously so dominant culturally, economically, diplomatically and militarily as America is today?

So here we are at the end of the 20th century, standing on Olympus. What is our reaction? There are two.

The official reaction of those in charge of our foreign policy is timidity and self-effacement. At a time of supreme unipolarity, the Clinton administration's watchword from the beginning has been "assertive multilateralism," a policy of group action and commitment, tying others and ourselves into as many treaties and posses as we can invent.

Warren Christopher's repeated pilgrimages to Damascus, including one in which he was actually turned away at the dictator's palace and returned the next day for more, is only the most public demonstration of this policy of self-effacement. Its most significant manifestation is our timidity regarding NATO expansion: Instead of pocketing the gains of our Cold War victory, we equivocate and postpone lest we offend the sensibilities of the country we roundly defeated in the contest for world dominance.

This official reaction to our dominance _ obliviousness, indeed a conscious downplaying _ is all the more remarkable given our unofficial reaction on display at the Olympics: a wild, gluttonous proclamation of American superiority, a 17-day orgy of rubbing it in.

Officially, we apologize. Unofficially, we gloat. Is there not something in between?

I'm glad for U.S. gymnasts. But why was this win so important to the rest of us? Did we really have to take such glee in the East Europeans losing one of the few things they had left, their perch at the top of this one athletic discipline?

I've long imagined that the Soviets threw that famous 1980 Olympic hockey game, Black Sox style. Why? To give us a little symbolic win, a sop, a blow-softener while they were walking off with Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Grenada (all taken in 1979) and we were reeling from Vietnam, the Iran hostages, inflation and a general national funk.

Clever KGB psychology, I thought. Sixteen years later, with the tables turned, I'd have reciprocated: Give them ladies' gymnastics, extend a hearty handshake, then take the whole Warsaw Pact the very next morning.

Washington Post Writers Group