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The Nationalist Games

The Olympics are supposed to be about overcoming differences among countries. They’re really about building nationalism.

By: /
11 February, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Every two years, alternating summers and winters, we go through this pretense that the Olympics are supposed to be about overcoming differences among countries, and then we are shocked, shocked that we see a heap of nationalism.  As always, the games themselves become the target of nationalist exuberance (our games our bigger and better than previous ones – if more expensive means better) and of nationalist sniping (the Russians cannot get anything right).  None of this is very surprising or very new.  As long as the athletes wear national uniforms, identity dynamics will kick in.

That is, we identify with some folks and not others.  This is the nature of identity – to place oneself into a group that seem like oneself and distance oneself from others. Donald Horowitz, borrowing from social psychology, explained how the logic of invidious comparison drives ethnic conflict.  Our emotions rise and fall based not just on how we are doing but how well those we identify with are doing and how poorly our “Others” are doing.  The Canadians feel great with every win and even more so when it means defeating… the Americans.  The Americans feel great with every win and even more so when defeating the Russians or the Chinese.  Yep, one of the enduring Canadian frustrations is that their relevant Other, the Americans, do not see the Canadians as such.  Perhaps the greatest frustration is that the most memorable Olympic hockey moments revolve around a country where hockey is the fourth most visible sport (see, there is my nationalist dig at Canadians). 

The number of people who have anything to do with the success of the Olympians is quite small: family, friends, coaches, and donors of cash.  Buying some mittens helps on the margins, but we are largely taking pride in something for which we really cannot take credit.  But that is the nature of identity. 

We could be rooting for all of the athletes because they are so amazingly talented, hard-working, gutsy, and attractive.  And we kind of do, except when one of ours is in the race or in the competition, then we root for that person or that team, and hope that the competitors slip, fall, or otherwise mess up.

And this is good for politicians because Olympic nationalism is the simplest form of nationalism.  Nearly every Canadian can agree to support the Canadians at the Games (well, some other stuff can come into play), nearly every American can identify with the Americans in the games, nearly every Swede can identify with the Swedish athletes, and so on.  The nationalism here really is about the flag and little else.  In most countries, there is not just one nationalism but competing definitions of who is Us, who is the relevant Other, and how tolerant we are of this Other.

In Switzerland, there was just a referendum that was quite divisive about who belongs in Switzerland.  A bare majority voted for restricting individuals from EU states from easily immigrating.  In contrast, the Swiss are far more united this week in rooting for their curlers, skiers, and so on. 

In Canada, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have been trying to emphasize certain strands of Canadian nationalism at the expense of others – its military history including the somewhat questionable use of the War of 1812 (pre-Canada, right?) versus the peacekeeping, multicultural nationalism espoused by the Liberals.

Again, this happens everywhere because there are always multiple meanings of each and every nationalism where various strands or themes are emphasized at the expense of others.  The Olympic nationalism, “woot, Canada!” is the simplest, most unifying nationalism. 

Which helps to explain why Russia was willing to burn $50 billion or so on a two week event.  We learned long ago that these events are not about profit (right, Montreal?), but about national pride.  Which is why the Russians are really hurt when we notice that the hotels are pretty messed up or when outsiders use the games to protest Russia’s policies on a variety of issues such as its treatment of the LGBT community.  President Putin wants these games to go well because it helps Russians feel better about their country and, by extension, their president.

Of course, there is one thing that we can all agree on that unifies all of us as we watch these games: that the American coverage is just a bit lame.

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