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pyeongchang 2018

Though she is not competing here under the Stars and Stripes, slopestyle skier Elizabeth Swaney may be this Olympics' representative American "competitor." Quote marks required. Ms. Swaney, from Hungary via California, is a skier in the way you are a skier. She owns skis, but can't do anything special on them.

The essence of slopestyle halfpipe is that you go down it, launch yourself off the edges and do tricks. Ms. Swaney's only trick was gaming the system to qualify for an Olympics.

Working with crowd-funded money and using her grandparents' Hungarian passports, she traversed the globe, going to minor events, racking up points when serious slopestyle skiers fell over.

Ms. Swaney doesn't fall down because she doesn't try. She undulates slowly down the hill like a vacationer headed back to the chalet. She finished last in Pyeongchang and only then became the all-time Olympic champion of cheek.

"I didn't qualify for the finals," Ms. Swaney told reporters afterward. "So I'm really disappointed with that."

I also didn't qualify for the finals of the ice dance, although I kept telling people I was willing to put on a bodysock and paw my way around the boards for a couple of minutes while My Heart Will Go On played. I'm disappointed, too.

Ms. Swaney is a familiar American type – the flim-flam artist, the corner-cutter, the oblivious striver. Ms. Swaney wanted to go to an Olympics. Since that's her dream, who does the world think it is to say she can't have it?

In other countries, they'd boo you back onto the plane when you got home, but in modern America, this is a smart way of getting yourself a show on the E! Network.

As it stands right now, Ms. Swaney may be the most talked about American in South Korea. Which is rather a change of pace for the Greatest Country in the World™.

Our good friends are having a bad Olympics. Not a so-so Olympics or a downbeat Olympics. But a pretty awful one.

With five days remaining, they stand fifth on the medal table, having already been lapped by leaders Norway (population: a little less than Wisconsin).

Medals aren't the major problem here. It's the impression left. The one America's making has little to do with sport and it is largely poor.

It started with U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence coming over to show North Korea … well, I have no idea what. That he was capable of powering through the norms of social etiquette.

Manners matter to South Koreans. Mr. Pence's old-timey-cowboy insistence on sitting to make a point resonated, but not in the hard-man way he'd hoped.

Locally, Mr. Pence was so badly put in the PR shade by the grinning sister of Kim Jong-un, he may never tan again.

It was a rough start for the new American way of being in the world and it has not got much better.

Although there are plenty of American spectators here, they are quieter than at Games past. All the swagger has left them.

Out in what passes for a downtown in Pyeongchang, you see plenty of national colours on the street. The red-white-and-blue is rarely one of them. American symbology is in visual retreat, even at the friendliest gathering on Earth.

The athletes have osmotically absorbed their role in the new order of things.

They seem to understand that no one appreciates the usual woo-hooing and fist pumping any more. The "U-S-A!" chants have grown less frequent at venues. The hand-over-the-heart stuff is more muted.

A few American athletes have stood out, but they are notably the ones who can project a comfortable distance from the country's worst instincts.

Everybody here loved figure-skater Adam Rippon and snowboarder Chloe Kim, in large part because their success is a rebuke to forces within the country they represent.

Mr. Rippon and Ms. Kim are Other America, the America the world would like to encourage.

Many of the stars who were supposed to thrive based the formula (Medals)+(Q rating)=(Interest) have fallen flat.

Downhiller Lindsey Vonn was the most notable of them, and possibly the most famous person here. She's yet done little of note.

After she finished sixth in Super G, Ms. Vonn said, "At least I'm not fourth."

That may not be the proper tone to strike.

From an American perspective, the highlight of this Games was meant to be Ms. Vonn's multiple head-to-head encounters with her successor, Mikaela Shiffrin.

On Tuesday, Ms. Shiffrin bowed out of the key duel, the downhill, citing scheduling conflicts. Ms. Vonn rubbished the training sessions as "mind games," leaving her little choice but to win or look quite foolish.

Snowboarder Shaun White was another senior member of the very-well-known redemption set. Four years ago, his gold would have been the story of the Games. But a personality that once seemed goofball and witty (albeit, in a witless way) now seems smug and out of touch. He's the America that once amused the world and no longer does. A sex-harassment scandal didn't help. Mr. White quickly fled South Korea and was immediately dropped from the Olympic narrative.

And the rest? No strong signals emerging from the U.S. camp. It's as though America's best Americans have decided the wisest course of action is one in which no one notices America at all.

Things should improve when the President's daughter arrives for the closing ceremony. One can imagine the athletes' joy when they get – for the second time! – to be props in the Trump family's war on the norms of diplomacy.

Ahead of this thing, you would've thought athletes having a bad go of it would console themselves with the idea that, "Hey, at least we're not Russians."

Now, it feels as though nothing could be harder than to represent the United States – a country that no longer understands what it's supposed to be on the international stage, or how it should act while out in public.

Russia may have been reduced to a winless and smouldering resentment at these Olympics. But it plays better than American cringing.

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