Why Can’t the Olympic Games Be Healing?

No More Olympic Baseball - Enjoy Curling

No More Summer Olympic Baseball – Learn Curling

The Olympic Games, for as long as we’ve known them, don’t merely reflect nationalistic fervor, but feature it, as central to the quadrennial spectacle.  Instead of allowing the Games to serve as a pause in national, ethnic, religious, and racial discord, we are reminded of them every day, and at each event

This critique isn’t unique, but hard to find in mainstream reporting, which of course has a vested monetary interest in the Games.  Two recent pieces by Jay Greene and Jonah Goldberg present a different view than you’re likely to get from Meredith Vieira.

I don’t “hate” the Olympic Games the way Mr. Greene does, nor consider it to be the worst enabler of evil in the global culture, the way Goldberg presents it, but such views are worth a look.

Yet even Greene and Goldberg miss one part of the Games’ toxicity —  its natural promotion and goading of nationalistic fervor.   (I emphasize “natural”).   Ultra nationalism has been central to the Games for so long, and is so pervasive, that it’s now just part of the ambient light and noise. Why do I consider this a big problem?  After all, I too enjoy the ritual of standing to the national anthem before baseball games; and am not ashamed to be tearing-up when operatic voices intone God Bless America at Yankee Stadium.

But I was also raised to believe that an integral part of the Olympic Spirit involved emphasizing the commonalities between Americans and Russians, not provoking wider differences.  The ancient Olympics were supposed to have brought together the (constantly) warring city-states of Greece, for a few days every four years, in truce and harmony, with real cease fires enabling the athletes to safely travel to the games. These cease fires, according to Greek historians, had half lives much greater than the ones we commonly hear about today in the middle east.  And the athletes originally came as individuals, not team members; though I’m sure they didn’t hide the names of their city-states.

Even if the Olympic Spirit is a myth, and the Greek historians are wrong, why have we fostered a tradition that adds to discord, rather than healing?  I’d settle for just “neutrality” on this scale.   Even if you believe the games were never a vehicle of peace or brother (and sister) hood, their embrace of nationalism is toxic and perverse.

Yes, I know, the answer, as always, is “money,” but I am going to suspend or assume it out of the equation for the course of this blog post, as economists are wont to do, so we can carry on.  In what manner do the Games take every opportunity to feed and fuel nationalist fervor? Here are the most obvious ways, and some (partly tongue-in cheek) proposed reforms.

The Games always open with a grand procession of the countries. The athletes march in together, closely knit, joined at the hips, under national flags and colors.  Sometimes they salute their leaders in the viewing stands with gestures not too different from the genuflections seen in their homeland military parades.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  What if they marched in groups organized around their athletic specialties:  all the runners together; the weightlifters in one group; and so on.  That would make for an interesting contrast in body types.  And we would also see how old and out of shape a lot of the equestrians are.

Why not do it that way?   Each athlete could still dress in native garb to celebrate their culture.   Maybe even carry a little flag; they would certainly wear the national pins they like to exchange with other athletes.   But the Russians, Algerians, Chinese, and Brazilians would march in together.  The rainbow of colors, both the clothes, and faces, would be gorgeous.

The Games feature team sports with nations clashing in rinks, courts, and in water; and with athletes pumping fists in the air after every score.  These events aggravate national tensions; they surely don’t heal them. Riotous flag waving rooters in the stands add to the hostilities.

What if they got rid of team sports altogether?   The earliest games didn’t have them.  Ok, that’s way too radical because we’d be throwing out entire (team) sports, not just the toxic parts of nationalism.   Lets try another idea: What if the teams were all multinational, organized by continents, sub-continents or other regions?   I realize that sounds utopian, even silly.  But that’s only because we’ve been doing it one way for so long.

Sure, regional teams would require basketball players, for example, to train with hoopsters from other nations for at least half a year before the games.  (That would be five months and 29 days more than the NBA all star teams trained together).  That might force Americans to learn Czech passing and defensive techniques, and vice versa.  Maybe David Stern would frown on that.

Yes, there are aspects to this which seem impractical, if not impossible.  Can you imagine an Israeli point guard playing alongside an Iranian center on a Middle East basketball team?   I myself can barely envision that.  But, It has a zero chance of happening if you won’t even think about it.   Something like this could happen if it was entirely separate from the Olympics, perhaps a venture which George Soros and Ted Turner could put together, with advice from Mitt Romney.    Or another Clinton-Pappy Bush collaboration.  Would it sell?

In today’s Games, the medal winners always stand on platforms while the anthems of their homelands are played.  Why is this necessary?  The orchestra doesn’t play the Italian national anthem at the Academy Awards when an Italian director wins an Oscar, though they may play a few notes from Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu, as the winner wends his way to the stage.

Okay, maybe the Oscars are a bad counter example, because Hollywood is so far to the left that anything patriotic (on behalf of any country) might be scorned.  Consider, then, the Nobel Prizes. You don’t hear the three national anthems played when Russian, U.S. and French chemists share a Nobel.   (Yes, the Nobel folk also have a reputation for leftist politics, but much more so in areas like literature, peace, and economics; not chemistry).   So, why not dispense with the flag waving and anthems, which only make some viewers more prone to take a course in suicide bombing?

Then, of course, when you tune into ESPN , FOX, or NBC, the first thing they report are the national medal totals.  What’s missing is a John King type analyst with a giant ipad screen which shows whether the Americans still have a chance of over-taking Norway and Russia in the medal competition, given the precincts that still haven’t reported……..I  mean the events still to be held.

The media of all countries dwell on the national standings. Of course, I understand they need to do that for the ratings.  Or to sell newspapers.  OK, so what if the lead stories were about great accomplishments from athletes no matter where they come from?  Or, if they reported on those regional or continental teams I proposed earlier.  Remember, I didn’t say this was practical; and I assumed away the need to sell advertising minutes.

A lot of today’s billions are made by Google (or a company that Google eventually buys), which identify customers or niche markets to feed just about any interest or fetish.  Surely there are enough of us who can’t stand the Olympic fueling of international discord, who could be identified by Google, and are willing to pay a little to watch sports coverage that made the national medal standings in the Olympics an after thought.  I would still go to Petco Park every summer to see the Padres, and experience goose bumps when they sang God Bless America; especially if it was Kate Smith’s great grand daughter singing it, together with Kate,  like Nat and Natalie.

Sure I get the goose bumps and sometimes cry when I hear the U.S. anthem on TV during the medal ceremonies.   But I have plenty of other times to experience that.


4 thoughts on “Why Can’t the Olympic Games Be Healing?

  1. pollins1

    There is a unique dynamic in Men’s Olympic Ice Hockey. The top 5-6 teams are made up of players who know each other from the NHL, and many are team mates (e.g. Russia’s Captain Pavel Datsyuk is an NHL team mate of Sweden’s Captain Henrik Zetterberg on the Detroit Red Wings … there are *many* other such examples). At the same time, these pro players are truly passionate about playing for their homeland and representing their country. Thus the games are played with passion, but without the thuggery of NHL games b/c a) IIHF does not tolerate the gangsterism that the NHL does, b) the players don’t want to engage in that kind of injury-inducing play b/c it’s their living (NHL season continues post-Olympics) and c) I really think the fact that there are “cross-cutting cleavages” created by NHL team mates on different national teams. Bottom Line: The game is played at its highest level and the players typically exhibit genuine sportsmanship and respect for their opponents. I love watching Olympic Ice Hockey.


  2. pfsirv123

    Thanks, Brian for the reminder about Olympic hockey. That may be the reason why the only hockey games I have been able to sit thru– wanted to sit thru– in decades have been Olympic hockey. I totally agree about thuggishness of NHL versus much more classy Olympic version. But, apparently it’s NHL , or for that matter, NBA and MLB that’s doing more for international brother and sister hood, than Olympics. I mean, Ginobli, Parker, Duncan on same championship Spurs team . wow.


  3. Paul Rotter

    Great post, and I completely agree with your objections to the “nationalist fervor” that the Olympics imbue.While there are crucial elements of national pride, these are all elite athletes that probably have more in common with one another than the majority of people in the nations from which they originate.
    I also agree with your suggestion that the Olympics be promoted as an event of cultural union. Though it does sound Utopian and a bit unrealistic, it’s certainly seems less silly than the nationalistic and emotionally-driven story lines promoted by CNBC.



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