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Excessive Nationalism Undermines Olympics

We are halfway through the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and I’ve managed to absorb several national anthems. Frankly, I’ve developed slightly antagonistic feelings toward the interplay of sports and patriotism as a result. The problem for me is this: The wholistic physical and emotional commitment of men and women to achieve the best athletic performances possible under challenging circumstances has been overarched by national aspirations and pride.
 

First, I am troubled by the public statements of the Canadian host leadership to “own the podium.” The huge investment of funds, personnel and national pride in these games produced a spectacular opening ceremony that showcased Canadian values, and for that it was a golden moment.

 

But in the exultation of the opening events, we also heard the stated intention of the Canadian government to become an international leader in something called the “athletic arms race.” (Rumour has it that a Day of National Mourning will result if Canada does not take the gold in hockey!) Given Canada’s role in the various international coalitions like the G-8, it’s not surprising that some would make that political reach.

 

Canadians are sensitive about their relationship to Americans, they are jealous of their sovereignty in the Far North, and they form a unique “third way” in Anglo-North American culture. Their self-assertion of world leadership, particularly as the Olympic hosts, plays very unevenly among a people known for their tolerance, grace and kindness: a “peaceable kingdom.” There is a deep pride when the hymnic “O Canada” is sung, but it is not jingoistic.

 

Second, I’m concerned about the resurgence of hostile attitudes between Russia and the United States, where every opportunity between the two countries once became an expression of dominance in the Cold War. Some of us recall in former Olympics when a collection of Soviet Bloc judges seemed always to evaluate American performances at lower levels than those of athletes from the U.S.S.R.

 

What it came down to was an ideological showdown between athletes trained under the mandates of the Soviet system and the more amateur athletes of the West. Until the fall of the Soviet Bloc in 1992, the East and West were seen to be in a relentless moral and technological struggle. The Olympics, regardless of individual performances, became a regular battlefront. National anthems became rally cries of triumphalism for “Team U.S.A.” or “Team U.S.S.R.”

 

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My third concern is for the all-or-nothing attitude concerning the medals. “Going for the Gold” is a laudable objective for all the participants as they train and compete. Once the performances have been logged in, however, only one can win the gold. The other top performers win the silver and the bronze, respectively. They each represent performances of singular quality and achievement. Not to diminish the value of gold, but silver and bronze in a field of international competitors are coveted rewards as well.

 

I am reminded of former NFL Coach Vince Lombardi’s response to a question from the media, to which he responded, “What else is there other than winning,” implying that there are only winners and losers. I would strongly assert that winners of Olympic silver and bronze medals are not losers!

 

The low point for me in the Vancouver Games thus far was the podium ceremony for men’s figure skating where the U.S. skater, Evan Lysacek, won the gold medal over the Russian, Evgeni Plushenko. Although there was superficial acknowledgement of the judges’ decision, Plushenko was deeply pained during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

 

To make matters worse for world peace and harmony, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin weighed in to fuel antagonistic public opinion in Russia that the decision was unfair and the medal award was not legitimate. Suddenly the clock had been turned back to the 1970s.

 

The repeated playing of a national anthem for each event can become an unnecessary statement of nationalistic dominance, literally a crescendo. I would prefer to see the respective flags in the background of the three medalists and some less heightened expression of appreciation for the individual performances. Any excessive statements of nationalism at the Olympics provoke unhealthy international attitudes.

 

In my opinion, the Olympic Games should be an unparalleled opportunity for mutuality and global tolerance, recovering the ancient Greek ideal.

 

Noted American Christian ethicist of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr, warned that the modern nation is the most absolute and compelling of all human associations. For him, extreme nationalism could be a threat to the very Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

In the same era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while not relinquishing his “Germanness,” came to the conclusion that nations are part of God’s providential care for the sustenance of human life, not ultimate ends in themselves.

 

One of the television hosts recalled at the opening ceremonies in Vancouver that it was only a little over 70 years ago that Adolf Hitler made the supreme connection between sports and nationalism as he welcomed the world to witness the triumph of the Aryan peoples at the 1936 Games.

 

How quickly we forget.

 

William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.