WASHINGTON—Three images from the Beijing Olympics linger in my mind: Becky Hammon, as American as they come, winning a bronze medal with the Russian women’s basketball team; Liang Chow, the Chinese coach of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, embracing his pupil Shawn Johnson, who won a gold medal for her performance on the balance beam after defeating a Chinese competitor; and Kobe Bryant, the NBA star, speaking to European TV crews in Italian and Spanish.

Last year, Hammon, a San Antonio Silver Stars player who at 30 knew this would be her last chance to attain Olympic glory, realized she would not make the U.S. team. While playing for CSKA Moscow during the WNBA off-season, she was offered Russian citizenship so that she could play with the national team. (She also retained her American citizenship.) It was the only way for her to compete in Beijing, and, politics being the last thing on her mind, she took the opportunity.

Hammon was vilified by many people in the sports world, including Anne Donovan, the U.S. women’s basketball coach, who said that she was “not a patriotic person.”

Hammon’s decision to play with the Russians contains a moral message. Individual sovereignty, it tells us, is a space that no collective force should violate. Invoking nationalist notions to condemn a woman’s pursuit of a dream that does no harm to anyone is to put national sovereignty above individual sovereignty—the seed of totalitarian ideology. Hammon does not love her ancestors, her family, her Silver Stars teammates or her friends on the U.S. national team any less because she took a cherished opportunity to play in Beijing. “This is a game of basketball,” she said in defending her decision, “this is not life or death.” A traitor? No, an heir to America’s grandest tradition: the right to the pursuit of happiness.

That American tradition also allowed Chow, a former Chinese gymnastics champion who came to the U.S. in 1990, to lead the U.S. women gymnasts against China’s team in his homeland before thousands of his fellow countrymen. Prodding, congratulating or consoling his American pupils in Beijing as if nothing else mattered to him in the world was not an act of betrayal against China. It was a lesson in individual liberty. For all its economic openness, the Chinese Communist Party cloaks the suppression of individual liberty with nationalist propaganda. Precisely because of that, the symbolism of Chow embracing Johnson after she won her gold medal on the balance beam is more powerful than the protesters’ attempts at demonstrating against repression in Tibet during the games.

And then there is Kobe Bryant speaking Italian, which he learned growing up in Italy, and Spanish, which his Los Angeles Lakers teammate Pau Gasol is helping him learn, to European journalists. He does this at a time when strong nationalist currents in the United States are influencing the public debate—expressed in the anti-immigrant sentiment, the protectionist backlash against globalization or the controversy surrounding Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s multicultural background. Is Bryant less American for embracing part of his cultural heritage by speaking one of the languages he learned as a child? Go and ask that of the millions of Americans who delighted in the victory over Spain with which the NBA star and the rest of the U.S. basketball team won the Olympic gold medal.

Despite the best intentions of the Baron de Coubertin, the French aristocrat credited with reviving the Olympic Games in the 19th century, the international competition has as much to do with collectivist nationalism as it does with universal fraternity. Any individual act, however small, that tears down a nationalist barrier during the Olympics should be applauded as restoring the games’ true meaning.

In “Salut au Monde,” one of the poems in “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman wrote, “I see ranks, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, I go among them, I mix indiscriminately, and I salute all the inhabitants of the earth.” It is in that spirit that Hammon, Chow and Bryant gave us something to remember.