Olympic Nationalism

By Stephen Saideman

GIVEN that my column here is entitled 'Xenophile', it is probably rather strange that I have not posted on nationalism in quite some time.  Perhaps because nationalism is no longer relevant?  As the recently concluded London Olympics reminded us, nationalism is still very much a force that shapes how people view the world around them.

The keys to keep in mind are:

  • All politics is local: nationalism trumps supra-nationalism any day since the people inside boundaries tend to be the ones who select leaders and these people tend to be self-centered.  That is they are more concerned about their own plight than that of those elsewhere.
  • Nationalisms are more complex than usually asserted: it is not just about who is more or less nationalist  or even the difference between ethnic and civil nationalisms but which elements of a nationalist identity are getting more attention, that are more salient.  The battles are often not over who is a nationalist but which elements of the nationalism should be most important.
  • Symbolic politics is still politics: politicians will compete over largely symbolic issues, but those stances matter both to voters or other selectors (the military) and many will have real impacts on people’s lives.

So, with those three guidelines in mind, let’s consider Olympic nationalism where the irony is that the Games are supposed to bring countries together even as they foster more rivalry and competition among them.  Just before the Games started, Mitt Romney was generous enough to give the folks of Great Britain cause to unite.  His concerns about the adequacy of the preparation served as glue among the folks who had recently been the least united.  The Scots are pursuing a separatist referendum, London burned just a year ago, and austerity measures are creating much conflict.  But all it took was for one American presidential candidate to appear to insult the British to inspire a common reaction.  Nationalism is very much about us versus them, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ changing depending on context – in this case, Romney’s ‘them’ solidifying the population of ‘us’ (the ‘British’).  That the games went very, very well according to nearly everyone meant that such ‘us-ness’ may last a little while longer.

The second reminder that the Games and Nationalism go together like track and field was the order of the contingents in the opening ceremonies.  Macedonia came into the stadium among the ‘F’ countries like Fiji and France rather than among the ‘M’ countries like Mali.  Are they bad spellers?  No.  Greece has continued to triumph in international by insisting that Macedonia can only join under the name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (or ‘FYROM’).  Yes, this farce continues twenty years after Yugoslavia’s demise.  It does make perfect sense, however, to scholars of nationalism.  In short, it is hard not to be a hardliner on the name issue in Greece, since it is easy for politicians to accuse each other of being bad Greeks if they accommodate Macedonia at all.  It is similar to, but more destructive than, the flag pins that American political candidates must wear on their lapels to show that they are good, patriotic Americans.  The only real benefit is to those who actually manufacture the pins (China?).  Greece’s hostility to Macedonia, on the other hand, has had real consequences.

Nationalism also comes into play when we want to suspect enhanced performance.  It should be no surprise that a 16 year-old Chinese girl would face much more suspicion when she swam faster than one might expect of someone of such tender years.  China is not too popular these days, especially in the US.  Michael Phelps did not face such criticism at home either when he won his first medals at a similar age  - or for other reasons  (possibly due to the fact that marijuana has never been seen as performance enhancing for swimmers).

The semifinal game for the Women’s football (soccer) between the US and Canada gave Canadians ample opportunity to fall back on the undercurrent of anti-Americanism that unites Canadians.  Given the similarities between Americans and Canadians, the latter must continually remind themselves of their differences.  That the US did benefit from some very fortunate calls allowed the Canadians to raise the possibility of a fix. 

As an American, I am biased in all of this. I tend to see that we are not the White Hats at these games and in the world, but rather the bullies who dominate everywhere but in/with China.  The US is hardly unique in this, as all nationalisms are part of social process to positive self-identification..  As Donald Horowitz argued thirty years ago, these nationalisms are a product of competitive self-esteem—that we feel better about ourselves when our group is elevated, even if that elevation is more perceived than real..  The Olympics make this abundantly clear (at least to cynical political scientists). Athletic competitions in the pool, on the track, in the gym, on the field, on the water and everywhere else nicely mirror the competitions between and among nations witnessed daily in international affairs.

The outlier in all of this was the participation of four individuals who were essentially state-less but allowed to participate anyway, appearing in the Opening Ceremonies as as the ‘Independents’. Since they did not actually win any medals, what we might learn from them is that those without identities (or at least, without traditional identities and the social and material support that these imply) are doomed to failure. This goes back to the basics of social identity theory. We identify and form groups because those who don’t compete poorly against those who do.  The tendency to form groups was and remains a key ingredient of fitness in any situation where only the fit survive. 


About the Author: Stephen Saideman holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), Carleton University. His publications include three books: The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and Intra-State Conflict, Governments and Security (with Marie-Joelle Zahar). He spent 2001-2002 on the U.S. Joint Staff working in the Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate as part of a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship.


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