Nationalism at the Olympic Games: Nationalism and the Future of the Olympics in a Globalized World
The Olympic Games, the premier world sporting event in which thousands of athletes from around the world participate, contributes to the development of international cooperation, revitalizes the economies of host states, and furthers sports science and technology. Most of all, the greatest pride that may be taken from the Olympics is in the demonstration of human talent that continues to advance with each successive games. In this way, peoples of all cultures and civilizations collectively continue to push the boundaries of human achievement. This year, Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee, declared in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Rio games that “In this Olympic world there is one universal law for everybody. In this Olympic world we are all equal. In this Olympic world we see that the values of our shared humanity are stronger than the forces which want to divide us” (2016). However, the games are not solely focussed on individual human success. Athletes compete as part of national teams and under national flags. Moreover, total medal counts are used to routinely compare and celebrate national success differentiating peoples. This paper explores that contradiction and looks to resolve whether that incongruity between individuals and nations may be overcome in order to achieve greater human succuss and international harmony.
The core value of the international Olympic Games is human achievement according to Chapter 1 Article 6-1 of the Olympic Charter, "The olympic games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries" (International Olympic Committee 2015). In other words, individual human success is characterized within the spirit of the games ahead of nationalism and national rivalries. This spirit is undoubtably manifested in the realities of those enjoying the games, for example, when Usain Bolt - a Jamaican sprinter - broke the world 100m record of 9.86 seconds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Stocks 2008), the world was ubiquitously thrilled for his remarkable human achievement regardless of his nationality. Nonetheless, when the Korean women's volleyball team won its victory against the Japanese team at the 2016 Rio games, a vocal segment of the Korean media used language that is in stark contrast with that spirit, for instance "old enemy" (S. Lee 2016) and "revenge" (J. Lee 2016); words which reflect national histories pre-dating colonization. At often times, instead of supporting individual athletes regardless of nationality, success is compared against national rivals and each country closely tracks relative medal hauls and this may be seen as evidence of deep-rooted nationalism that undermines our collective human endeavor for betterment.
Then how does nationalism conflict with our global multicultural celebration of mankind? Nationalism is considered by Schatz to be "perceptions of national superiority and support for national dominance" (1999, p.157). From a purely evolutionary standpoint, striving for collective success within groups has been how civilizations have unified their strength and created a shared identity, yet, it has also been a source of intergroup conflict in a world of limited resources; a division most starkly identifiable at the peak of the Cold War where the world was divided broadly into two ideological camps. In short, there are both positive and negative aspects that may be drawn from the existence of nationalism and intergroup rivalries. The Olympic Games then, is clear in its goal to be a competition defined by human success and not a theatre of state conflict.
In the 20th and into the 21st centuries the world has become increasingly multicultural; our technologies and peoples are now more than ever belonging to a global society as opposed to one defined by stringent national borders. A problem then emerges as national identities becomes blurred while peoples cling to nationalism as a tool for promoting success. The countries that are successful at the games are those that invest in the infrastructure for their athletes and in their top athletes. As such, it is reasonable for individuals for take particular pride in athletes of their home states. Nonetheless, in many cases athletes owe their success to not only their own state, this may be evidenced in the successes of Kim Yuna, one of Korea's most successful Olympians, who spent much of here Olympic career refining her ability in Canada with a Canadian Coach (Joh 2009). Today's globalized world is as much globalized for athletics as it is for trade and finance and as such the international effort should be appreciated as part of that human achievement.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the governing body of the games, despite efforts for sports investment and sports outreach through charitable actions, does not however hold significant control over how the games are perceived by individuals who are influenced more directly through their domestic media that is providing access. Despite, well-meaning speeches and efforts to promote international peace through a disconnect from geo-politics, it remains up to individuals to determine how they understand and perceive the games. This means that where ill-feeling towards other states already exists it may re-emerge through competition at the games.
The coverage of the 2016 Rio games on Korean television networks was dominated by a clear focuss on Korean successes, particularly in Fencing, Volleyball, Shooting, Archery and Taekwondo. The networks are of course not solely responsible, as they are satisfying an audience with a desire to take pride in the achievements of athletes they see as their brothers and sisters. This paper however argues that individuals may take the lead in and global shift to more encompassing global community. By understanding that the purpose of the games is to celebrate new human achievements surpassing previous limits, individuals may take from the games a greater degree of satisfaction; broadening their share of success experiences.
The Olympic games is perhaps the best example of humanity celebrating human success despite the various conflicts that exist between us at many levels. For the spirit of the games to be fully embraced we should be open to the celebration of those outside of our national groups regardless of our challenged pasts. The peoples of the world already do a wonderful job of celebrating the human nature of achievements in sprinting, but there are many other areas in which we can do better. In watching, the games as individuals we may take great pleasure in celebrating the new achievements of individuals regardless of their ethnic backgrounds or nationalities. In many cases, athletes carrying the flags of their nations are doing so with the support of and international network and this is not well understood by those who hold hostile feelings towards particular national rivals. Korea will be the next country to host an Olympic event, the Pyeongchang Winter Games in 2018, and that gives it the opportunity to lead the world in this regard. Korea has endured a long history of international challenges and it has persevered to emerge as a peace-leading member of the international community. At the forthcoming games, it will be the people of Korea who will be able to celebrate the success of Koreans, international partners, and international rivals alike, in doing so they will be able to fulfill the spirit of the games to a degree never before seen and will be able to influence the shape of a harmonious future global society with new heights of human achievement.