The Problem of Olympic Nationalism

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Pierre de Coubertin,
the originator of the modern Olympics, envisioned the quadrennial
athletic event as a substitute for war. Athletes — motivated by
the love of sport, not money – from different nations would engage
each other in friendly competition while representing the pride
of their countries, he hoped.

Let's compare
what's become of the Games to the French aristocrat's vision.

While many
wail about the participation of NHL or NBA (during the summer games)
players, the real problem is that of the nationalistic emblemation
of athletes.

One US skater
is a dual US-Korean citizen. Other athletes are born in third-world
countries but somehow manage to become US, UK or EU citizens more
quickly than any non-athlete could so that wealthy nations can not
only claim athletic superiority, but also present themselves as
tolerant multi-ethnic societies.

And who can
forget the "Italian" hockey team of 1992? Composed entirely
of retired or marginal National Hockey League players, this squad
couldn't claim a single member who was born or ever resided in Italy.
One, Blake Dunlop, qualified for the team because a great-uncle
of his had an aunt who was Italian-Canadian!

Don't get me
wrong. I have nothing against athletes from one country lending
their talents to others. But the current system begs questions.
One, which I've already indicated, is: What gives an athlete the
right to compete for one country or another? Or, perhaps more to
the point: What gives a country — or any team — the prerogative
of picking a particular player?

In professional
sports the answer is simple: Whoever can, and wants to, pay. We
see the results all the time: European soccer teams routinely employ
South American and African players; NHL teams stock their rosters
with skaters from northern and eastern Europe. And, where would
major-league baseball in the US be without its steady infusion of
Latin American (and now Korean and Japanese) players?

However, the
Olympics were supposed to be the domain of "amateur" athletes.
Of course, this ideal was perverted long ago, mainly by the former
Soviet Union. Russian hockey players, swimmers from the GDR, Romanian
gymnasts and Cuban boxers were given no-show jobs so that they could
devote their energies to training. In the sort of logic that raises
eyebrows but even the best lawyer can't contest, these countries
could claim — at least technically — that their athletes weren't
being paid for skating, swimming, somersaulting or slugging.

What motivated
these countries — which were not the military and economic colossi
propagandists portrayed them to be — to spend money they didn't
have for fleeting moments of fame? The answer is, of course, ideological:
The world was deep in the grip of the Cold War, and Kremlincrats
wanted to show the world that their system was better than capitalism,
or any other.

Depending on
whom you believe, they may have wanted to rule the world. But they
were probably sensible enough to realize that a tête-à-tête
confrontation with the US or its allies would've been suicidal
for both sides. So on fields, courts, rinks and tracks, Pravda
editors and their cohorts could claim victories and experience vicarious
thrills that simply weren't possible on the wider stage of the world.

Another question
begged by the current system of Olympic participation is this: Are
transnational, interracial hatreds sublimated by competitions in
which the competitors represent nations? Does it really help to
promote peace and understanding when contestants, draped in the
flags of their countries, do battle with each other on playing fields?

No sane person
can doubt that Olympic-style competition is preferable to armed
conflicts between nations. But one also has to wonder whether two
people or teams competing as putative embodiments of states can
only serve to foment other kinds of rivalries between nations. It's
difficult to see how any contest that pits one nation against another
can aid the causes of friendship and peace throughout the world.

Finally, one
has to wonder whether such rivalries are the reason why municipalities
are so willing to spend money they don't have to host the Games.
City fathers (and mothers) of emerging nations' capitals (like Seoul
in 1988) will pony up prodigious sums of money to host what they
see as a way to show the world that their nations are "players"
in the world. Of course, hosting the Games has no real effect on
a nation's (or city's) status in the world: Sarajevo and Montreal
are examples of places that tried to use the Olympics to showcase
themselves (or their nations) but went into decline soon afterward.
And it can be argued that Seoul and South Korea were already on
their way to becoming the economic powerhouses they are today.

Perhaps worst
of all, city and national governments extort their citizens to pay
for facilities that are often all but unusable after the games.
Furthermore, people continue to pay for the Games long after most
people have forgotten them. (As an example, the Province of Quebec
still levies the tax it instituted for the games Montreal hosted
thirty years ago.) The 1984 Summer Games, held in Los Angeles, may
be the only ones since World War II not to bequeath deficits onto
the grandchildren of the Games' organizers.

So,
if the Olympics are to realize Pierre de Coubertin's vision — and
be relevant today — they must become showcases for individual talents
rather than platforms of jingoism.

February
13, 2006

Justine
Nicholas [send her mail]
teaches English at the City University of New York.

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