The Olympics: Nationalism within a Global Context
By Gerson Moreno-Riano, February 25, 2010 in Publishing and Research

I confess:  I am an avid fan of the Winter Olympics.  Since I was a little child, I can remember staying up as late as possible to watch the snow-filled games.  Now, as an adult and parent, I continue the tradition with my own kids.  I am lax on bedtimes and we all stay up late and watch the games.

This time around, however, I do so with a more sensitive intellectual conscience.  Having just co-presented a paper on teaching the American political tradition in a global context, it has been fascinating to watch the Vancouver games and think about nationalism and globalization.  For all of the talk about globalization, the Olympics are a great display of how entrenched nationalism still remains.  The Olympics really are nothing more than nationalism in a global context.

The very essence of the Olympic Games is competition among rivals.  Competition implies distinct parties with distinct outcomes.  Without such distinct rivals, competition would be difficult if not impossible.  While advocates of globalization attempt to ameliorate if not erase national differences, the Olympics are a testimony not only to the existence of national differences and traditions but also to their importance for human life and fulfillment.  Globalization as advocated in the academy would sap variety from human life and would destroy great cultures and traditions in the name of political correctness.

While such terms as “global citizen” or “citizen of earth” may be fashionable descriptors, they are morally and emotionally bankrupt approaches to public life.  Just watching any of the Olympic medal ceremonies serves as a great reminder that national citizenship, identity and pride deeply matter to human beings. 

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Lee Trepanier on Feb 26, 2010 at 10:09 am

Exactly. Why else have the national anthem played for the winner?

M BERNSTEIN on Mar 11, 2010 at 6:35 am

I regret that I find Professor Moreno-Riano's piece less than convincing or satisfying, more for what it fails to mention than for what it does; indeed, there is “more to it”, much more, and it is hardly the only let alone the “final” word on the subject.

For one major flaw, it fails to mention that many athletes have little more than a passing affinity with the country they nominally represent, a practice which is disingenuous and misleading at best. There are those who do not live or train in the country they nominally represent or who have left it years before – and also “other way around”, representing a "recently acquired" country; indeed, using mere citizenship as a litmus test or proxy for legitimate representation can be spurious and deceptive.

This phenomenon is, as expected, not limited to the Olympic Games. For example, the men’s champion of the 2009 ING New York City Marathon panned himself as an "American" and the media was quick to seize upon it, with, for example, the CNN headline which proclaimed, "First U.S. Man Since 1982 wins NYC race". The then 35 year-old winner, Mebrahtom "Meb" Keflezighi, was born in Eritrea and became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in 1998, eleven years before.

The plethora of commercial interests, government sponsorship and the more recent inclusion of paid, professional athletes previously excluded combine to make the “games” much less and at the same time much more than a simple competition among nations.

The prevalence of "performance-enhancing" drugs or substances has resulted in disqualification and medal stripping and has seriously marred these games, detracting from their allure as well as from their validity and credibility. The looming possibility of governmental complicity is both noteworthy and alarming.

The history of malignant political infusions, both intra-national and trans-national, notably including the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the black-fist "salutes" at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, has punctuated the evolution and has marked the transformation of this would-be last bastion and showcase of good will, fair play and achievement.

As such, and for other reasons as well, these “Games” have evolved far beyond being a healthy competition, one pitting abilities and talents of nations, having become instead a "show" in an arena - suffused with political and commercial interests and exacerbated at times with weakly marginal candor, both on the part of the participants and the nations they represent which together significantly detract from its "national" character and its being an unassailable source of national pride.

about the author

Gerson Moreno-Riano
Gerson Moreno-Riano

Gerson Moreno-Riano has been appointed as Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Regent University.  He is also an associate professor of government at Regent.  He has been at Regent since 2006.

Moreno-Riano's latest publications include the co-authored The Prospect of Internet Democracy (Ashgate, 2009) and the edited volume The World of Marsilius of Padua (Brepols, 2007).  He is currently at work on two commissioned projects: 1) a companion to Marsilius of Padua and 2) organizational evil in the modern era.