The Problem of Olympic Nationalism

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