National pride runs through Olympics, now as ever
Given the depths of his anguish, you might have thought Wu
Jingbiao had lost a loved one. Heaving with shame, the double world
champion weightlifter wept like a child in the arms of the TV
reporter interviewing him.
”I let my country down,” he sobbed. ”I let the Chinese
weightlifting team down. I let everyone who has cared about me
down. I am sorry.”
He had won the silver medal.
Organizers insist that the Olympic movement exalts individual
achievement, not national pride or prowess. Look at the official
Olympic website: There is no medal table. The International Olympic
Committee doesn’t keep count.
Yet nationalism has infused the Olympics – at its origins in
ancient Greece, at its height during the Cold War and still
strongly in London in 2012. So it’s only natural that at this most
global event unfolding in this most multinational of cities,
questions of national identity and the very essence of nationhood
Partisan hooligans don’t roam Olympic Park, it’s true. But a
more benign form of patriotism can be found everywhere, from the
Legoland of flag-draped apartments in the athletes village to
Britain’s promotion of fish and chips at Olympic food carts.
That is not by chance. The Olympic opening ceremony alone is
designed to show off the host country’s cultural and historic
greatness, while the parade of nations groups athletes into uniform
blocks marching behind flags. The flag-and-anthem ceremonies for
every medal drive home the message that personal best and national
pride very much share the podium.
Let’s not forget the spectators: In the stands, they’re draped
head to toenail in national flags, waving them, wearing them,
wrapping themselves in them. At home, armchair Olympians are fed
feel-good stories of national hopefuls and heroes, almost to the
exclusion of the actual winners and losers.
”The fascination of the Olympics is that there’s a slight
mismatch between what the organizers want and what the spectators
want,” says Martin Polley, an Olympic historian at the University
of Southampton. ”The IOC values system is clearly very out of step
with everybody else’s version.”
Take the Olympic Charter itself, the statement of the very
principles of the games: ”The Olympic Games are competitions
between athletes in individual or team events and not between
countries,” it reads.
Tell that to China’s state-controlled Guangming Daily newspaper,
which has complained of anti-Chinese bias in the judging of men’s
The picture gets complicated when the athletes’ own identities
come into question.
These days, athletes can swap citizenship almost more easily
than corporate sponsors. They marry, move for better access to
training or simply accept offers to compete for other nations. The
three Kazakh women who won golds in weightlifting are all foreign
imports. Only three of the 16 teams in women’s table tennis didn’t
feature a player born in China, or with Chinese roots. A
Chinese-born woman played for the Republic of Congo.
While those may be extreme examples, few nations can claim to
field exclusively homegrown teams. In Britain, the debate over
so-called ”plastic Brits,” or competitors of convenience, raged
for months in the run-up to the games.
Yamile Aldama, a British triple jumper, was pilloried in the
local press for competing for her native Cuba in 2000 and Sudan in
2004 and 2008, after her British citizenship application stalled,
and finally Britain in 2012. She had hometown support last week in
Olympic Stadium, but she managed only fifth place.
By contrast, Mo Farah – who moved to Britain as a child from his
native Somalia and grew up in the British sports system – was
treated as a national hero after he won the 10,000 meters.
”If it wasn’t for the crowd and people shouting out my name and
putting the Union Jack up, I don’t think it would have happened,”
he said after his win.
Farah followed up Saturday to secure a long-distance double by
winning the 5,000 meters.
Shara Proctor competed for Britain as well, even though she
lives in Florida and hails from Anguilla, a Caribbean island of
15,500 people close to Puerto Rico. But Anguilla, like several
former British colonies, doesn’t have an IOC-approved national
Olympic committee, leaving her without an Anguillan flag under
which to compete.
Four athletes in London faced similar problems because of their
nations’ unresolved status in the world, and are competing under
the Olympic flag. Three hail from Curacao and found themselves in a
bind following the 2010 breakup of the Netherlands Antilles.
Despite not having an approved hometown flag, they made a memorable
entrance at the opening ceremony, dancing, jumping and striking the
occasional Usain Bolt-style pose.
Guor Marial doesn’t have a country, either. The marathoner, who
will compete Sunday on the final day of the Olympics, was given the
right to compete under the Olympic flag after fleeing a refugee
camp in what is now South Sudan. The world’s newest country doesn’t
yet have an Olympic team. Marial is a permanent resident of the
United States but not yet a citizen.
”Representing the five rings is the best,” he said. ”I’m
representing the whole world, basically.”
One has to wonder how that might have struck the founder of the
modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The French
aristocrat proposed reviving the Olympic movement in 1892, hoping
to rally French pride through sports after the country’s
devastating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. The first modern
Olympics was staged four years later.
De Coubertin saw international sports ”as a less tragically
inclined form of national rivalry,” says Alan Tomlinson, professor
of leisure studies at the University of Brighton and editor of
”Watching the Olympics: Politics, Power and Representation.”
De Coubertin came up with the Olympic motto – ”Faster, higher,
stronger” – thinking it would inspire individual competitors.
”But it’s also a motto that can be used at a national level,”
In fact much of the symbolism surrounding de Coubertin’s revived
Olympics laid bare the nationalistic sentiments at play at the turn
of the last century, albeit under the guise of peaceful
The five interlocking rings of the Olympic flag represent the
union of the five continents, but the blue, yellow, green, red and
black colors of the rings were selected because they were found in
the national flags of Olympic countries at the 1920 Antwerp Games,
where the flag made its debut.
The original Athlete’s Oath, also introduced in Antwerp, was
changed in the 1960s to remove the original pledge to compete ”for
the honor of our country.” Athletes now pledge to compete ”for
the honor of our teams.”
”We want individuals to bring out the best in themselves
through sport,” says Mark Adams, an IOC spokesman. ”The whole
nationalism thing doesn’t come into it for us. That happens to be
the world we live in and how sport is organized, but it’s not our
There is perhaps good reason why the IOC plays down the
nationalistic aspect of the Olympics: It happens anyway.
Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Games to try to exalt the
superiority of his Aryan athletes, but was upstaged by Jesse Owens’
four gold medals. The decade that followed showed just what
nationalism meant in the hands of someone like Hitler.
The Cold War produced the tit-for-tat boycotts of the 1980s: The
U.S. persuaded more than 60 other nations to boycott the 1980
Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The
Soviets responded in kind four years later by boycotting the Los
Even today, Taiwan isn’t allowed to use its flag or its name at
the Olympics. The self-governing island, which China regards as a
renegade province, is identified as Chinese Taipei.
Despite the inevitable intrusion of politics and national pride
in sports, de Coubertin was convinced that the Olympics could
contribute to international peace, says John Baick, a professor of
history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.
”The idea of having rotating host countries was that you will
stay in a country that you may be conditioned to hate – but may be
conditioned to respect” after the experience, he notes.
The observance of the Olympic Truce, to suspend warfare, dates
from the Olympics’ ancient Greek origins, when it was needed to
ensure safe passage of all athletes to and from the games. The
release of doves as a symbol of peace was also a prominent, age-old
feature in opening ceremonies – until several of them went up in
flames after settling on the rim of the Olympic cauldron just
before it was lit at the Seoul Games in 1988.
Andy Miah, a professor of culture, ethics and technology at the
University of West Scotland, says one of the legacies of the
Olympics will be a continued debate about identity and nationhood,
and what it means to belong.
He notes that the ”host-nation nationalism” that has been on
such display during the games is unlike anything Britain has
witnessed, and is particularly significant given that Team GB is
composed of athletes from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern
Says Miah: ”We can look at this as a catalyst for discussions
of political identity – and about ourselves.”
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