Can We Have the Olympics Without Nationalism?

Graphic Courtesy of Audrey Normand.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) mission declares that the goal of the Olympics “is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind, in a spirit of friendship, and fair play.” Since the first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896, the Olympic Movement has grown into a monumental event that brings the world together.

The Olympics today are a combination of commercialism, professionalism, capitalism and nationalism. The Olympic Charter sets out competition between individuals and teams rather than between countries, and yet this event to celebrate athletic excellence has been transformed into an opportunity to represent one’s country on the world stage. Despite the Olympics’ best efforts, national pride and patriotism are now engrained aspects of the Games.

Just turning on the television during the Games’ two-week coverage invites the startling wave of national media coverage. From a realistic and commercial point of view, the nationalistic media focus makes a lot of sense. Most Olympic viewers tune in to see and hear about athletes from their own countries, relishing in the successes and cringing at the calamities. When strategically enforced by various news outlets, an us-versus-them mentality is transmitted to viewers that only fuels foreign rivalry. Citizens may interpret the Olympics as a forum of showcasing their nation’s strength and skill rather than a platform for international competition. The Olympics seem to be desperately trying to enforce values that may not be compatible with the patriotic nature of the competition and coverage.

Approximately 6% of athletes are competing for countries they were not born in

Patriotism on its own isn’t necessarily incompatible with the ideals of globalism and international solidarity. It’s possible for countries to be proud of their own athletes while simultaneously respectful and appreciative of foreign competitors. At its best, patriotism can be an inspiring and unifying force. At its worst, it’s a pawn in a greater political game that can result in violent antagonism between countries, such as the horrific Munich Massacre. With the ever-changing global political landscape, this stirred sense of nationalism can quickly turn from healthy competition to dangerous.

Not everyone shares an enthusiasm for the Olympic Games. George Orwell famously wrote in 1945 that international sports are a mimicry of warfare, explaining that “serious sport has nothing to do with fair play, it is bound up with hatred and jealousy, boastfulness…sadistic pleasure in unnecessary violence. In other words it is war minus the shooting.” While seemingly laughable to compare sporting events to glorified warfare, there’s little room to deny the intense competition that arises in viewers and athletes alike. Both sports and war have a “rally round the flag” aspect, and while the actions are drastically different, the end goal remains the same: unification to defeat a common enemy. Historically, nations have always jumped on the opportunity to show their strength, whether that be in battle, technology, or wealth. Sports are no different, with citizens uniting behind their athletes in international competition to fulfill national victory.

This stirred sense of nationalism can quickly turn from healthy competition to dangerous

Beyond the nationalism encouraged through sport, many experience the physiological effects of competitiveness and stress whilst watching Olympic coverage. Racing hearts, clammy palms, and knotted stomachs are all side effects from seeing runners seconds from the finish line or a snowboarder just barely stick their landing from a jump. I and tens of thousands of other Canadians will always remember the 2010 Vancouver gold-medal game between the Canadian and U.S. men’s hockey teams. The eruption of the room when the game was finally over in Canada’s favour was an inspiring moment of camaraderie for Canadians everywhere. A proud Canadian my entire life, I will openly admit that pride in my country spikes during the Olympics, particularly in the winter when I get the chance to see our athletes excel in snow-related sports. The influence of patriotism is palpable for many events, and it’s easy to get caught up in the country-wide wave of euphoria (or heartbreak).

However, many argue that in our increasingly globalized world, nationalism in sports is becoming a dated notion. Nation-switching amongst athletes is a common example. When athletes born in one country end up competing for a different country in the Olympics, the opinions of the athlete are not entirely positive, with criticisms and accusations of betrayal. As PyeongChang 2018 transpires, approximately 6% of athletes are competing for countries they were not born in. Nation-switching has numerous examples, one being that more than half of the U.S. men’s track team consists of East African-born men. And while the IOC doesn’t approve of nation-switching, it’s certainly not within their power to stop it. The Committee’s disapproval is arguably hypocritical, with  their charter noting that competition is between athletes and teams, not between countries. It’s an interesting idea in an increasingly globalized world – these athletes are switching to countries with better training opportunities, for the chance to become the strongest athlete possible. These athletes are competing in the Olympics to be the best in their sport, not for a love of country.

The Olympics are far from what was originally intended since their modern inception in 1896

Where are the Olympics heading and what’s their future? Ultimately, the question is greatly influenced by how much patriotism will continue to play a role in the Games. Will fans continue to cheer for their countries? Some experts predict that we may see a corporate influence in future Olympics, with massive corporations contracting their own teams of athletes to compete, similar to sports leagues such as the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Basketball Association (NBA). The idea of a corporate Olympics begs the question of the very values that the Games were founded upon, but then so do today’s Games. The Olympics are far from what was originally intended since their modern inception in 1896. With only 240 all-male amateur athletes, the Olympics in Athens was not centred around competing countries, and only Hungary sent a national team. The nationalistic craze of the Olympics developed over the years and has now become an essential aspect of the events, making the concept of amalgamated teams plausible.

Corporate athletes may very well be in our future. The Olympic delegation from Russia competing in PyeongChang 2018 are a glimpse of athletes competing without their home country flag. Granted, this situation is not ideal for the athletes and came about due to public shame and scandal, but the fact remains that we are witnessing a group of neutral athletes winning medals in their own name rather than their country.

As our world continues to become more interconnected and entwined, the future of patriotism and the very concept of a nation-state will be directly affected. Canada’s “cultural mosaic” is a prime example of how it’s possible to belong to more than one country at once. At the PyeongChang 2018 Opening Ceremonies two week ago, athletes entered the arena by national team, proudly waving their flags. For the Closing Ceremonies this Sunday night, athletes will enter as one wave of world citizens.

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