The Olympics Preaches Internationalism but Thrives on Nationalism
In these last Olympic Games, Rio was able to do something quite remarkable. For the first time in the history of the Olympics, a Refugee Team participated in the games. Ten athletes from four war torn countries - The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria - were chosen to represent the 63.5 million displaced people of the world. Watching the team walk out during the opening ceremony was an amazing moment, a true representation of what the Olympic spirit should be.
I say should because no matter how many of these types of moments we have, the Olympics can be boiled down to the one thing that they claim to transcend: nationalism. In some games it is more evident, in others it is hidden. But it is always there and it is how the Olympic games survive and thrive.
Before I continue I want to stress that I am not talking about patriotism. Patriotism is being proud of your country and what it stands for. It is based on values and beliefs. It is believing that your country is one of the greatest, but that every other nation can be great as well. Nationalism, on the other hand is believing that one’s country is better than the others. It is based on a national culture--language, history, demographics--not values. The nationalist’s instinct is that his country is the greatest, no other country can be as great, and if any other state tries to be great they must be put down.
This nationalistic spirit has been present ever since the first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896. Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic games in order to spread the ideas of peace and a community of nations, yet this did not stop the wave of nationalism that took over the games, starting with the host. In a clear slight to the hated Ottoman Turks the opening ceremony took place on the anniversary of the declaration of the Greek War of Independence, something that probably would have offended them very much had they been invited to the games in the first place.
It was not just the Greeks that let their nationalistic pasts get the best of them. Coubertin had trouble getting the French and Germans to participate due to hostile relations between the two countries that dated back to the 16th century and reached its peak during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. The Irish also brought their nationalistic struggle into the games, refusing to participate on the English team.
In London 1908, the Swedish team refused to participate in the opening ceremony because their flag was not on display in the main stadium. In the 1920 games, following WWI, the Allies were all too pleased to shove their victory further into the Central Powers’ face by not inviting them to the games. The same happened with Germany and Japan following WWII in London 1948. In 1980, the United States boycotted the games in Moscow with the Soviet Union responding by refusing to attend the 1984 games in LA.
None of this compared to the Berlin games of 1936. Everything was choreographed to display the power of the German state. Nazi propaganda and symbols were deployed all across the city. A free exhibit on German culture was set up for the foreign visitors. Foreign photographers could not take their own pictures out of fear they they would end up representing Germany in a bad light. Hitler even had the Hindenburg fly across the Olympic stadium displaying the Nazi symbol.
How did this happen? How did a symbol of peace and internationalism turn into a stage for nationalistic displays and agendas? Think about your fifth grade dodgeball matches. Everything is fine and dandy until that jerk Kyle yells “you throw like a girl” in front of all your friends. Suddenly the friendly match has become a fight to the death to see who can hit who in the face the most with the ball. This is exactly what happens on the Olympic stage. As soon as there is a feeling of disgrace or lack of respect -whether to the athlete or country- that savage chauvinism rises up and takes over. It is no longer about the game. It is about earning the respect of the other nations, no matter the cost. The sport is no longer important. Only the flag matters now.
And the irony of it all is that the Olympics survive and thrive on nationalism. It is the only reason why they interest us. There is no other time that most of us, if any at all, would even think of watching swimming or gymnastics. I can bet that none of you watched the world championship gymnastics competition in 2015. Why? Because it lacks the nationalist narrative. We don’t want to see Simone Biles take on Wang Yan. We want to see the USA take on and beat China, and we want everyone to see us do it. It’s no mystery why the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were the most watched of all time. The narrative of China vs. USA, the up and coming economic powerhouse vs. the established superpower, communism vs. capitalism, new world vs. old world, east vs. west, home vs. away. It was too good to miss and 4.7 billion people tuned in for the gladiator match that was, in many sports writer’s opinions, one of the best Olympic games ever.
When we watch the Olympics we are not really watching the sports or the athletes. It is why we allow NBC to make us wait until prime time to watch the games, even though they have already been spoiled for us. It is why NBC only shows us the sports that Americans (or Usain Bolt) dominate as opposed to exposing us to other events or athletes. It is why the IOC let the Russian team participate in the games after a doping scandal. This is about nations and their pride, not sport. What we are watching is a king of the hill competition between all the states of the world, and all we care about is who comes out on top.
Yes, we will always have great moments of sportsmanship and internationalism at the Olympics. However, at the end of the day, the last thing NBC will be showing us is that final medal count and everyone will be looking for their nation at the top.