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Nationalism (Not Dead Yet)

Yes, the Olympics are over, but that can’t stop us from pondering the “most powerful ideology in the world today"—nationalism. Yet this is more than mere armchair quarterbacking (er, rowing? cycling? walking? modern pentathloning?1). Rather than give you cheap musings on women’s handball or gymnastics vs. swimming, however, we offer the reader some thought-provoking insights on international relations and the Olympiad (complete with pictures and video).

First, for those of you who decry the sappy, American-centric coverage of NBC, just know that every country does it, and it’s time Americans were thankful that if we have to watch only our compatriots (and Roger Federer and Usain Bolt, the only foreigners NBC cares about), we at least get to see all the cool sports. Can you imagine if your country is only good at long-distance rowing or the cycling time trials? It’s time to stop belly aching and love your country (though you still don’t have to love the obligatory camera shots of Michael Phelp’s mom falling over in disbelief every time he breaks a record). Believe it or not, those ironic Brits realized that they too really love their country. Sure, it wasn’t really until after they started winning some gold medals, but how dormant could British nationalism really be when a few of them inspire people to throw on garish attire like Union Jack-inspired plastic bowler hats, shades, and full-on face paint? Most Brits seemed pleasantly surprised, if slightly embarrassed, about their new-found love for their flag. To them, flying the Union Jack on their front lawns or off their cars was previously unheard of. And no, we didn’t just read this in The Atlantic—people told us as much without prompting. At the very least, the London 2012 Olympics proved that Europeans can dress just as unfashionably as their perhaps wrongly maligned American brethren. Trust us, there were loads of garish props and clothes to be had by all.

As all of this goofiness attests, there is something rather benign about Olympic nationalism. It’s ok to root for your own country, drap a flag around your shoulders, and sing the national anthem. And everyone wants their own nation to win, but you want to see records broken and unbelievable athletic achievements even more, regardless of the competitor’s country of origin. We want to see Usain Bolt run faster than anyone has ever run. People everywhere go crazy for Michael Phelps. And it’s even better when someone sets a record at the Olympics (if you missed this incredible record-setting performance in the 800 meters, watch it now).

We caught the men’s marathon on the last day of the Olympics with a front-row seat near Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Also in attendance across the way: a delegation from the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. Don’t tell these fans that the nation state is passing away any time soon. Americans love chanting, no doubt about it, but the South Sudanese took it to another level. There is a lot of waiting when watching a marathon; the runners only come by once every 30-40 minutes (unlike some marathons, London’s was run in laps rather than one big loop). Most fans stand there looking around and twiddling their thumbs. The South Sudanese broke into a chant every five minutes, waved their flags, sang songs, and jumped up and down, regardless of whether or not their man happened to be running by. It was enough to make you wish you were from South Sudan. (To disabuse yourself of that notion, read this New Yorker piece by Jon Lee Anderson, which also happens to be the first time we finished an article on Sudan and felt like we had a clue what is going on there.)

But it turns out that this was more interesting that it first appeared. The South Sudanese weren’t cheering for someone running for South Sudan because South Sudan doesn’t even have an Olympic team. Instead, they were cheering for one of the Games’ only independent athletes, Guor Marial, a Sudanese refugee living in the United States. The Olympic committee granted him—as well as all the athletes from the Netherland Antilles—the right to compete under the Olympic banner. Had he won, they would have played the official Olympic hymn. (That’s right, the Olympics actually has its own anthem, and, no, it is not the Gershwin masterpiece that kids these days think is just the jingle for United Airlines.2) Which probably means that since South Sudan didn’t send an Olympic team, the fans pictured here were probably political refugees living in London.

What does all this say about nationalism? We have no idea. But it does say something about identity, and the Olympic Games wouldn’t be what they are today if people weren’t completely confused about theirs. Besides Guor Marial and the Dutch Antilles, you had this fine upstanding gentleman repping Mexico even though the USA paid his way (we’re not mad or bitter about it, just annoyed that it caused such a firestorm). Then there was the whole North Korea debacle where Pyongyang’s athletes were pictured next to a South Korean flag (there, that should help their inferiority complex). USA icon Michael Johnson also hawked his outdated racial theories, er, announcing, to British television. The Brits’ aforementioned awkward embrace of the Union Jack. But perhaps there was no one more confused than this guy:

I’m sorry, are looking for your identity?

You can’t see it, but our friend here was wearing an oversized red China T-shirt and waving a small China flag, in addition to donning his ridiculous sombrero and somehow joining the South Sudanese for some singing. Was he Mexican? A Chinese person heavily influenced by spaghetti Westerns? A uniter of peoples? We’ll never know.

Anyway, dash it all, the Brits weren’t about to have their party spoiled by these sorts of upstarts. Nor would they join them on the drab and dirty street. When you have history and breeding, my good fellow, you get a proper good view!

Carry on, Chaps. I say, Good Show!

Which led to this awkward juxtaposition—the colonialists, in no small part responsible for much of the strife going on in the gigantic hodgepodge known as Sudan, drinking fine wine and leading the crowd in “Team GB” chants, towering over their former subjects who were fresh from casting off the Arab rulers in Khartoum that London had left in place on the way out.

Great Britain: Stoking nationalist sentiment by haphazardly drawing borders around indigenous peoples with nothing in common since 1757.

Only a week after the Games ended, however, the world witnessed a stark contrast to the warm-and-fuzzy Olympic-style nationalism. Protesters went ballistic in over a dozen Chinese cities upon watching a meager band of 10 Japanese right-wing nationalist activists swim out to an unihabited pile of rocks and raise their country’s flag.3 The Chinese protests involved smashing Japanese-made cars and other goods, burning Nihon's flag, and busting up Japanese restaurants (though most of these restaurants and cars were undoubtedly Chinese owned. We often focus on the structural factors (and lo and behold, oil has been discovered near the disputed territory known as the Senkaku islands) that make a future conflict between China and its neighbors (and by corollary, the United States) seem inevitable. But ideology is also in play. The argument that China’s worldview is inherently peaceful is something we all want to believe, but the same could be said of most governments and societies when looking at them in isolation from everyone else. Just because the average Chinese person is nice doesn’t mean that the Chinese don’t have egos like everyone else. Their country is surrounded by staunchly nationalist societies (Russia, Korea, Vietnam, small-but-entrenched groups in Japan) that also go bonkers at the drop of a hat, which would be fine if it was just pride at stake and not resources and territory, too. Maybe that’s why the Olympics can be full of nationalist sentiment while simultaneously having a “kumbaya” feel—it’s not as if we’re actually playing for anything. Outside of sports, though, it certainly looks like the Chinese (and the South Sudanese) are playing for a lot more than mere pride.


  1. In case you don’t watch the video (or if you were just as confused as we were), the modern pentathlon is a sport, to state the obvious, of five events: horseback riding, swimming, speed-fencing, and a combo pistol-shooting/running event (you read that correctly, and it counts as two events). Recalling the bygone era when the average man had to fend for his life with gun and rapier, this event somehow managed to outlive baseball as an Olympic sport. Even worse, it is much less fun to watch than you’d imagine. We caught the shooting/running women’s race that caps the event at a pub after the U.S. men’s basketball team squeaked out their gold-medal win over Spain. One huge disappointment: the contestants no longer wield (much less run with) real pistols, but instead shoot lasers at little black targets (think Nintendo Duck Hunt but outdoors and without the dead fowl or any decipherable scoring system). Second, world-class athletes need not apply. When’s the last time you saw someone at the Olympics run 3,000 meters (taking a few 30 second breaks along the way), only to collapse right after the finish line in exhaustion to the point where it almost becomes an injury hazard? Well, this is precisely what happens. Do you really even need to train for this? We’re fairly certain America should be dominating this event. Aren’t there any soldiers we could throw out there for the shooting? And why doesn’t China own this one like they do every other niche contest? Boggles the mind. 

  2. In case you weren’t clobbered over the head enough times with this fact, United is an official sponsor of the Olympics. Surprise! So is Visa, with their stupid commercials commemorating inevitable events that just happened, which they filmed before the Games, such as the U.S. women’s beach volleyball gold medal and Phelps’s record-setting gold-medal talley. We expect Visa to cheapen history before our very eyes. We just didn’t expect it from you, Morgan Freeman. And that’s not even the worst of it; the corporate dominance of the Olympics almost—almost—ruins the Games for everyone. It turns all the athletes into people shilling bad products. Does anyone honestly believe that world-class athletes eat McDonald’s and drink Coke? And how do you think gymnastics gold medalist Gaby Douglas feels, knowing, as Coca-Cola had the gall to tell us, that “if you’ve had a Coke in the last 80 years you’ve had a hand in making every Olympic dream come true”? The only bright spot here? The Cadbury billboards in the Tube stations in London. We enjoyed those

  3. This happened only days after Chinese activists swam ashore, sang patriotic songs, were arrested by the Japanese Coast Guard and sent back to China. (The Taiwanese also tried to make a statement, but were thwarted by a typhoon.) And all of that happened only days after the 67th anniversary of the end of WWII, which some Japanese lawmakers observed by visiting the creepy Yasukuni shrine. So neither side is bereft of symbolic and inflammatory gestures. The Koreans have also been at loggerheads with the Japanese over a different clump of land, which, although called fancy names like “Dokdo” in Korean and “Takeshima” in Japanese, are officially known to the rest of us as the Liancourt Rocks. It can’t even be called an island! Yet that didn’t stop dozens of Koreans, including a pop star, from swimming there in another protest, the same week that everything went down with China over the Senkakus. Apparently when all else fails, angry swimming is the way to go. 

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