My grandma is 91 years old. Her accent is thick, yet the pride in her voice as she talks about the '76 Olympics is unmistakable. When she was hiding from the Nazis in Budapest, she could never have imagined that she'd one day attend the Olympic Games as a U.S. citizen and the mother of a U.S. Olympian. The same goes for my grandpa, may he rest in peace. His journey from laboring in a Nazi work camp in Romania to supporting his son at the Olympics in Montreal was a long and improbable one.
My grandparents closed their fabric store in the Bronx -- something they never did -- so they could travel to Montreal to watch my dad compete as a member of the United States Men's Olympic Basketball Team. When my family arrived in America 12 years earlier, from Communist Romania, my dad had never touched a basketball and didn't speak a word of English.
But in America, anything is possible.
By the summer of '76, roughly a decade after stepping foot onto U.S. soil, my dad had already appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and had been named an All-American basketball player. Now, he stood on the podium with his Olympic teammates, a gold medal hanging around his neck, his hand on his heart, the United States National Anthem filling the night air.
In the crowd, my grandparents cried like babies.
America wasn't perfect, certainly, but at least it tried to be.
They were proud of the athletic achievement, surely, but they were equally moved to know that their son, an immigrant from a poor country and one of the few descendants of a family decimated by hate, had represented the great and mighty United States of America. As he stood on the podium dressed in red, white and blue, he symbolized to them the values that America embodies to people all around the world: freedom, dignity, honor, strength, respect.
Having seen the evil and injustice that led to the Holocaust and the tyranny and brutality that defined Communism, my grandparents revered the righteous ideals of their new home. America wasn't perfect, certainly, but at least it tried to be. Its mission was a good one. Its principles were just. It erred in a variety of ways, as it still does today, but its core beliefs were decent and commendable.
By having "USA" across their chests, my dad and his teammates stood for something on that podium. They stood for American values. They stood for treating others with a sense of humanity, for displaying courage and grace in the face of adversity, for protecting friends and repelling foes.
America was great then, and it is greater now. The notion that America needs to be made great again has been sold to the American public through a currency of fear and manipulation. The image of the world spinning and spiraling out of control has been proliferated to scare Americans into abandoning the values on which the country was built. It is a dangerous and scary world, no doubt, but so was the world my grandparents lived in. The world they barely survived, but which all four of their parents and seven of their siblings did not.
If there's one thing history has shown without question, it's that humanity will always have its challenges. Accordingly, we perpetually strive to do better, at home and abroad. Progress in America, however, will occur as a result of the values that make America special, not because of those aimed at tearing Americans apart.
We've seen them combed all over the press lately, straight from the mouth of the Republican nominee for president: Intolerance. Indecency. Cruelty. Disrespect. Hatred.
Today, the panoramic picture of the American delegation from '76 continues to hang prominently in my grandma's modest Bay Area apartment, as it has for the last 30 years. When I see it, I reflect upon what my dad stood for on that day and what our Olympians in Rio will stand for when they fulfill their lifelong athletic dreams. Will these great athletes represent a country that upholds what's pure and good about America -- the values that have inspired and uplifted my family and millions of others around the world -- or will they represent a nation poised to elect a divisive xenophobe like Donald Trump as president?
If it's the latter, unfortunately, our Olympians will be linked to ideals that are entirely un-American. And they deserve to stand for something far greater than that.