Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Do the Olympics Promote Nationalism?

Since I wrote this post on the topic of the nation-state, while I was watching the Olympics, I wondered how the two relate to one another.

Without going into it too much now (maybe in a later post), I think nationalism is generally a bad thing. And yet, I love the Olympics - where athletes are grouped into teams by country. As much as I hate nationalism, I love watching Americans win. I love seeing crowds covered in red, white and blue and I love hearing the Star Spangled Banner as the American flag is raised in the night sky.

So how do I reconcile these two? Short answer: I'm not sure.

Longer answer: My first reaction is that American "nationalism" is not actually nationalism at all, but idea-ism. As I wrote earlier, America is more of an idea than it is a nation. And so my happiness in seeing Americans triumph is more accurately happiness in seeing the idea of America triumph.

But my first instinct doesn't tell the whole story because I got the same tingling, happy feeling inside the first and only time Hatikvah was played at the Olympics, two years ago in Athens. So maybe nationalism is only natural. Maybe we will never overcome the state-system because to do some would be to overcome human nature.

Or maybe this excitement is not nationalism at all. Because tonight as the Russian national anthem played and a 24 year old pairs skater, who just a year ago was accidentally dropped on her head by her partner, stood on the gold medal podium with tears welling up in her eyes, I got that same tickling sensation. And I felt it again when Italy got its first gold medal of the games and a crowd of thousands stood in the cold singing "Il Canto degli Italiani," the Italian national anthem.

As humans beings we have a connection to each and every individual on this earth that transcends national identity and religious identity and every other identity. Because first and foremost we are all human. Yes, I may be happiest to see an American or an Israeli or a Jew win because I feel we share something that I don't share with others. But in the end, I am happy to see anyone win because I know we share something deeper than religion, or ideology or ethnicity - we share humanity.

Do the Olympics promote nationalism? Probably. But more often, they bring people together. How else do you explain the standing ovation the Chinese pairs team received after Zhang Dan was injured in a fall but skated through the pain to finish her program and win a silver medal. How else do you explain the excitement the world felt for the Iraqi soccer team in the Athens games? Yes, people like to see their home teams win, but more than that they like to see good people win. And that ability to overcome national identity is a good thing.


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