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August 12, 2008

The Olympics And Nationalism… Plus Doug Stanhope

by Brad Warbiany

There’s a lot of hoopla and hullabaloo over the politicization of the Olympics, including the fact that it’s held in a country that is horrendously restrictive of social freedoms.

But there’s another aspect that’s largely ignored. There is a certain nationalism that follows the Olympics, which is wholly unjustified. As Americans, we are expected to celebrate the accomplishments of American athletes as if they are our own– as if their accomplishments bring glory to America rather than to the athletes themselves. The whole nation-glorification aspect reminds me more of a McCain campaign rally.

Tonight, the American women’s gymnastics team was bested by the Chinese in the team competition, while the American men’s relay swimming team absolutely destroyed a world record on the way to their own gold medal in that competition. Should I feel pride, as an American, that our men’s swimming team did so well? Should I feel shame, as an American, that our gymnastics team was beaten by the athletes of a nation whose government is deplorable on a level that we Americans are nearly unable to comprehend?

No. All of this faux-nationalistic-pride is bullshit. I don’t share in any of the wins, nor in any of the defeats, of the American Olympic athletes. I celebrate those Americans who have excelled in these Games, just as I also celebrate those non-Americans who have excelled in these games.

The Olympics is a competition that pits the best of the best, from around the world, in feats that the rest of us can simply ogle as if they’re super-human. We should celebrate the athletes that medal in these games, whether they’re American, Chinese, Russian, Kenyan, Indian, Chilean, or from any other nation in the world. This is a competition of the best of the best, and we should be celebrating the best, not some faux nationalism of athletes who we have no connection with outside of an arbitrary accident of sharing borders.

Celebrate those Americans and non-Americans who medal at the games, but understand that their accomplishments are not your accomplishments. As Doug Stanhope said:

You didn’t medal anywhere. Why should you care if some American who you have never met– and will never meet– beats some foreign athlete who you will never meet?

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10 Comments

  1. well said….I’ll go one step further. All athletes who are able to meet the standards required deserve our respect.Those that medal should receive our congratulations.The only reason countries are involved is for organizational purposes.

    Comment by hk — August 13, 2008 @ 10:23 am
  2. Wow. I think you’ve seriously jumped the shark here. Rooting for your countrymen in the Olympics as “faux-nationalistic-bullshit”? Harsh.

    I assume you would apply this thinking to every form of sport’s spectatorship? If rooting for Americans doesn’t make sense than neither does rooting for the Red Sox or the Cowboys or the Trojans (pity anyone who roots for any of those teams). Thanks for bringing us all back to reality. Yes, I realize that I will never win a gold medal nor a Superbowl Ring and certainly never the Stanley Cup, but that’s precisely why I watch. It’s impossible to ignore that fans are somewhat living vicariously through their favorite teams and athletes, but is that justification for such condescension? It’s not unusual to root for people you tend to feel a common bond with. In this case, that bond is being an American.

    There is another reason to root for the Americans (and other free western nations) in the Olympics. This is a battle of systems. Authoritarian regimes throughout history have sought to flex their muscle and demonstrate their superiority through athletic competition. It is also something that communist regimes are uniquely positioned to excel in. Churning out world class athletes is easier with forced training regimens and a large population to draw from. One of the Chinese gymnasts was taken from her home when she was 3 and sees her parents only once a year. Young boys are sorted and forced into specific sports like soccer and basketball. In contrast, aside from the occasional over-oppressive soccer dad, our athletes achieved these feats with their own free will. They were volunteers.

    Now, maybe none of this matters, but I worry that a Chinese victory will only vindicate the cruel and brutal methods by which it was achieved. I root for their defeat. Does it mean anything in the long run? Of course not, but I don’t think my pride is misplaced.

    Comment by Bret — August 13, 2008 @ 1:02 pm
  3. I usually root for the countries that never get any attention otherwise. They never win anything, but at least they get a moment in the sun. The Olympics are Vanuatu’s time to shine!

    Comment by Peter Orvetti — August 13, 2008 @ 1:43 pm
  4. “Wow. I think you’ve seriously jumped the shark here. Rooting for your countrymen in the Olympics as “faux-nationalistic-bullshit”? Harsh….
    Comment by Bret — August 13, 2008 @ 1:02 pm”

    I agree

    Comment by Chris Brewer — August 13, 2008 @ 2:47 pm
  5. Bret,

    I’m not suggesting that you don’t root for anyone, I am suggesting that even if your favorite athletes are Americans, it is a personal (or team) feat rather than a national feat to win. It’s taking pride in the fact that an American has won simply because you’re also an American that I am criticizing. It’s when you progress from “the American swimming team beat the Chinese” to “we beat them” that you’re making the wrong leap.

    As for the Chinese [and other authoritarian] government using tactics such as “drafting” athletes into national service, that should be unequivocally condemned. However, that’s the fault of the Chinese government, not the Chinese athlete. That girl, probably 17 or 18 years old now, has spent her entire life training and dreaming of this moment. Wanting her to lose in order to punish China again falls victim to the “us vs them” aspect I’m criticizing. You may call it a “battle of systems”, but you need to realize that this Chinese gymnast is just a teenage girl with hopes and dreams. Root for Americans if you’d like (I personally am rooting for Michael Phelps to break new Olympic records, because he’s certainly earned it), but don’t take perverse joy in the losses of others.

    As for other forms of sports spectatorship? I tend to take the same sort of disinterested view. While I often root for one team over another, I don’t take personal pride in my chosen team’s accomplishments. There is one notable exception to that, and it’s Purdue football. But I realize it’s irrational and I’m taking it way too seriously.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — August 13, 2008 @ 2:51 pm
  6. Brad:
    On one level, you are most certainly right – there is something extremely bizarre about the idea that the performance of someone you’ve never met can be a source of unerring pride and sense of self-superiority in your nation. But I think for most people, it is more an issue of making the Olympics (and sports more generally) worth watching; think of it as emotional gambling where, instead of wagering money spectators wager their emotions. And just as gamblers have their “lucky numbers” or “lucky cards,” sports fans wager their emotions on a relatively arbitrarily chosen team. The difference is that in sports, the choice of what to “bet on” is made less arbitrary by virtue of the fact that you can usually find a team with which you have at least something in common (usually locale/nationality). Finally, just as there are people who become addicted to gambling and, in the process, become obnoxious douchebags, there are people who become more or less addicted to their teams and, in the process, become obnoxious douchebags (BTW – if you’re a Cowboys fan who neither lives in nor has ties to Texas or Oklahoma, there’s a p>0 chance that you’re an obnoxious douchebag). This is not a knock on sports fandom, though – or at least I hope not, since I’m no stranger to the roller coaster of investing too much emotion in one’s favorite sports teams (FWIW – I’ve been a dedicated Bills fan for 20 years, and a Mets fan for a lot longer than that). Fandom is inherently arbitrary to a certain extent – but for many people it’s that very arbitrariness that makes it worth watching. There’s just not much excitement involved for most people in always rooting for the best team or always rooting for the underdog. Dogmatically sticking with a team ensures that the highs will be really high (and the lows really low – but without the lows you don’t get the highs).

    As for the whole issue of actively rooting for others to fail regardless of the success/failure of your preferred team, I couldn’t agree more that it is indeed perverse, at least when it is reflective of a deep-seated hatred. (A lot of times, though by no means always, this sort of thing is done more or less in jest, and isn’t something particularly serious). Indeed, one of the primary ideas underlying the concept of the Olympics is that they are supposed to be a way of celebrating our common humanity and demonstrating that, whatever our government, we are all at base human. Rooting for someone to fail simply because of their nationality inherently denies their status as human beings entitled to be treated no less humanely than one would treat their own neighbor.

    As for me, and despite my admitted fandom (including my admittedly irrational fixation on the medal count), there has never been anything more emblematic of the ability of the Olympics to bring out this humanity than this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zi0_LjHHN4

    One more thing regarding the claim that authoritarian regimes use athletics to demonstrate their claims to superiority and that therefore it is proper to root against those countries. I frankly don’t care how the Chinese government or any other government uses sports for propaganda purposes – propaganda only has value if people believe it. By rooting against athletes from these countries, you are just giving credibility to the propaganda. In other words, such regimes can point to your reaction and say “see how upset they are that we won? That is because they know our victory means we are superior.” Propaganda only has power to the extent individuals allow it to have power.

    Comment by Mark — August 13, 2008 @ 8:02 pm
  7. Mark,

    Good point on the propaganda aspect. After all, the Soviets used to do all sorts of things to suggest (through athletics) that they were superior. Look at how well that worked out for them in the long run.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — August 13, 2008 @ 9:02 pm
  8. Sports is a subject where any kind of filthy politics is unwarranted. Sports personalities do influence once’s thinking. They are above an average person in sport activity and they definitely deserve people’s attention irrespective of which part of the world they belong.
    Phelps is a HERO by all standards.

    Comment by R.D.NAWANI — August 13, 2008 @ 10:05 pm
  9. “Good point on the propaganda aspect. After all, the Soviets used to do all sorts of things to suggest (through athletics) that they were superior. Look at how well that worked out for them in the long run.”

    Too bad the Chinese aren’t the soviets….
    Unlike the soviet union, an empire which had a non-functioning economy, China has the fastest growing major economy in the world, and the largest and potentially most lucrative market in all history. Add to that 5000 years of nationalism and pride, and you get the picture.

    Comment by Gary — August 14, 2008 @ 1:18 pm
  10. DFL (a great olympic blog) has a post about George Orwell that I thought might add to our conversation:

    http://www.mcwetboy.net/dfl/2008/08/tedious-exercise-in-petty-nationalism.html

    Comment by Bret — August 22, 2008 @ 11:44 am

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