In late 1945, just months after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union sent its powerhouse Moscow Dynamo soccer club to play a series of exhibition matches against English teams. The tour was supposed to help solidify Anglo-Soviet relations. But the effect was the opposite: The games featured fist-fights, foul play, allegations of stacked rosters, and churlish crowds. After four matches, the Dynamo packed up and went home early, with national tempers rubbed raw on both sides.
“How could it be otherwise?” George Orwell asked, in his famous essay, The Sporting Spirit. “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield … At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare [fought by] nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”
This helps explain why the Olympics continue to be such a farce. Look behind the flim-flam about building global harmony through wholesome sports competition and you will find a giant exercise in petty nationalism.
In the democratic West, this means a childish (if harmless) obsession with tracking one’s nation in the “medal count.” In dictatorships, it takes on a darker aspect — as seen, most hysterically, with China’s childish collective freakout over the abuse heaped on the Olympic flame by human-rights activists in the run-up to the Games.
It goes without saying that Beijing has spent a fortune — more than a billion dollars by one estimate — seeking to dominate the Games themselves. Winning Olympic gold has always been such an obsession among dictatorships — from Nazi Germany, to the USSR, to the freakish gender-benders set loose upon the world by Warsaw Pact gymnast programs. As a species of “mimic warfare” (Orwell’s term), the Olympic Games allow dictators and ethnic supremacists to stir up nationalistic bloodlust without actually going through the bother of military combat.
Even in the West, there is always a great wringing of hands if our Olympiads fail to deliver the expected haul of medals — with newspaper editors and columnists (including purported conservatives) invariably proposing Soviet-style sports programs to rectify matters four years hence, as if it somehow were a matter of national importance that our Pommel Horse Men were screwing up their dismounts.
The Olympics reflect the human condition — though not in the sunny way we pretend. We have inherited form our primate ancestors an inborn, evolutionarily learned desire to segregate ourselves into tribes, now known as nations. And since most of us are too fat and lazy to participate in tribal warfare (even of the mimic variety) ourselves, we have outsourced the job to those few physically spectacular national champions fit enough to enter the ring.
From the patriotic mass media’s point of view, the most desirable Olympic specimens are the ones who, in some gauzily defined way, purport to embody the character of the nation as a whole: the corn-fed American weight lifter who grew his muscles lifting hay bales on his family’s Kansas farm, the Canadian goaltender who stopped his first shots on a frozen Saskatchewan pond, the Kenyan marathon runners who trained barefoot running from village to village in the Rift Valley.
But with every passing Olympiad, the link between the athletes and the countries they represent grows more tenuous: Many Western squads now are stacked with Third World immigrants given shotgun citizenship after being recruited into elite training programs. Other nations — China, most notably — have frog-marched thousands of athletes into sports that are unpopular and obscure at home, but which seem a safe bet for a massive medal tally. According to a recent New York Timesarticle, Beijing’s cynical effort in this regard is called “the 119 Project” — named after the number of medals available to be won in particularly event-heavy sports — such as rowing and kayaking and sailing.
Needless to say, with national prestige on the line, team members are administered every drug that can possibly be slipped by the urine collectors. “As soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused, the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes,” Orwell noted. “People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless.”
Of course, hockey, baseball, football and other professional sports are themselves species of “mimic warfare” — and my curmudgeonly critique applies to them as well. But they are less ridiculous for the simple reason that they at least have popular appeal. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t be professional.) An amateur tennis player spectating at the Rogers Cup, a league bowler tuning in to a weekend pins tournament, a little league hockey coach bringing his family to see the Canadiens or the Oilers: In each case, the sport itself — and not just a crude sense of tribal loyalty — is the main draw. The same isn’t true for the vast majority of Olympic sports, none of which any of us pay the slightest bit of attention to 206 weeks out of every 208. (When was the last time you set your Tivo to record a trampoline competition? Or synchronized anything?) In these sports, we’re rooting on the Canadian squad for no other reason than that they happen to be wearing a Maple Leaf-emblazoned unitard. As Jerry Seinfeld quipped, we’re essentially cheering laundry.
All societies need circuses. And this Big Top event will continue on the strength of this eternal human appetite. But let us not pretend it is anything more than that. National jingoism is something that educated people see fit to disparage in just about every context — including, in this post-patriotic age, war itself. Why should it be any different when the object of our attention happens to be men and women hopping around in lycra?
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