The real winner of the Olympics: nationalism

In the warm afterglow of the 2012 London Games, one of the recurring themes has seemed to be how humanity can come together despite our myriad differences to celebrate human athleticism and sporting prowess. True, but at the same time the very conduct of the Games has provided a reminder of one key difference: competing nationalities, where the geography of the Olympics takes our established political maps for granted.

The relative importance of the medal tables, and the flag-draping and waving by both competitors and spectators inescapably make the Olympic games a celebration of allegiances and loyalties on a national level. One’s passport and citizenship determines the in-group that we identify ourselves with in a straightforward manner – who should I support? Who do I want to win? And ultimately, who is the ‘we’? The tremendous success of nationality as a marker of identity is reflected most powerfully in the cheers and support whenever ‘our’ man or woman is competing – support for a particular athlete just because he or she comes from the same country that one is a citizen of, even if we know next to nothing about that athlete, let alone that sport. Stephen Walt puts this nicely when he writes that:

“Every Olympic year I ask my students who they rooted for, and whether they got a subtle thrill when one of their countrymen won. Are they disappointed when one of their fellow nationals loses out? Of course, the vast majority of students admit that they tend to do just that, and I’ll confess to similar instincts myself.

“But the next question I ask them is “Why? Why do you care? Is it because you know the actual people involved?” Of course not. I don’t root for Ryan Lochte of the United States over Yannick Agnel of France because I know them both personally, and I happen to like Lochte more, or because my personal knowledge of the two tells me that Lochte is more deserving in some larger sense (i.e., he works harder, has overcome more obstacles, etc.). I have no idea, yet for some silly reason I get a certain pleasure when some American I’ve never even met does well. This tendency is even more true about team events: I really have no way of knowing if the American team is nicer, smarter, more ethical, etc., than any of their foreign rivals. Yet I find myself cheering for a bunch of strangers who for all I know might be mostly jerks.”

Occasionally, spectator appreciation for sublime individual performances and special talents do transcend national differences, such as Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps for their sheer achievements. But the norm is to cheer for TeamGB if you’re British, TeamUSA if you’re American, and Team-insert-your-country-here – nationalism exemplified. The Olympics have been terrific for national cohesion, as the litany of ‘proud to be British’ commentary illustrates, with ethnic, religious or class differences fading away especially when one has a medal around the neck. But the corollary is also to increase the sense of difference with who ‘we’ are not – for if ‘we’ are British or Malaysian, then we are certainly not French or German (for the former), or Singaporean (for the latter). National affiliations, in sports as in other areas of life, draw a line that defines and categorises who is ‘inside’ the community, and who is ‘outside’, who are ‘citizens’ and who are ‘strangers’.

Two weeks ago, the opening ceremony provided a quick glimpse of just how ingrained nationalism is in the Olympic ethos – with the appearance during the parade of athletes of a small team walking behind the Olympic flag as Independent Olympic Athletes. It was notable not just for their dance routine  (see video from the parade here), but perhaps also because it raised just a little question about the parochialism of nationalism that runs throughout the Games: why don’t we see more athletes competing under this flag?  That these group of athletes are an exception, rather than rule, is a reminder that Olympic participation is organised through national Olympic committees. This structure caps on the number of athletes a country can send to participate in a given sport, and the absence of a NOC prevents participation, leaving a South Sudanese marathon runner, and athletes from the Dutch Antilles to compete under the Olympic flag. At the next games, if South Sudan has established a NOC, there’ll be no such provision.

The ‘Independent Olympic Athletes’ at the London 2012 athletes’ parade (credit: SportsGrid)

The organisation of Olympic participation based on our existing political boundaries means that the politics can never be separated fully from the sports. That the competition at the top of the medal table between the US and China is viewed through the lens of their larger political rivalry (among other things, the ‘China’s rise’ and victimhood narratives), and attempts are made to assemble ‘alternative’ medal tables weighted by population or GDP only underline the point that (especially as a mass spectator event) the larger triumph of the Olympics lies in reinforcing identities based on national allegiances and loyalty claims. The spectacle of the Olympics transcend human differences, yes – in every way but one.

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