The Olympic Spirit Is Unbridled, Rabid Nationalism

The Games succeed because they indulge precisely what they claim to transcend – the world's basest instinct for tribalism.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 05: A Brazilian fan gestures during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on August 05, 2016.   (Photo by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 05: A Brazilian fan gestures during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on August 05, 2016. (Photo by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As we now know, the steady drumbeat of alarms about the now-unfolding Rio Olympics were not entirely wrong. There have been some miscues and troubling moments. Despite an 85,000-man-strong security force that has made downtown Rio look like a cross between a military base and a prison yard, the chief of security for the opening ceremony was mugged at knifepoint as he left the Olympic stadium. Impoverished Brazilians stoned the torch relay. Mysteriously, water in two Olympic pools turned from bright blue to a murky green, causing divers to wonder if they shouldn’t keep their mouths shut like the swimmers and sailors competing in bacteria-filled Guanabara Bay.

Thousands of fans have nonetheless descended on Rio for this 16-day extravaganza, just as they have been doing at Olympic festivals throughout the 120-year history of the modern games. What makes Rio’s ongoing party impervious to the scolds?

In part, it’s the beauty of supreme athleticism and the sizzle of carefully choreographed spectacle. But, more fundamentally, it’s the games’ capacity to dip repeatedly into a deep well of communal passion harbored by competitors and spectators alike. Whatever the organizational inadequacies and logistical screw-ups, these purported celebrations of one-world togetherness succeed because they indulge precisely what they claim to transcend: the world’s basest instinct for tribalism.

That instinct lay at the heart of the ancient Greek Olympics, in which athletes entered the arena as champions of rival city-states for whose communal glory they fiercely fought, sometimes to the death. The ancient games lasted well over 1,000 years under that rubric, but similarly roiling national and ethnic animosities almost doomed the modern variant — intended by its founder, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, to be a glorious celebration of international harmony and good will — to an early demise.

In 1896, Turkish athletes would have boycotted a festival hosted by the hated Greeks if they’d only been invited. Nationalistic Hungarians refused to participate alongside Austrians in a team representing the dual monarchy; likewise, Irish athletes rejected mixing with Englishmen in a British Empire squad. Witnessing the wild enthusiasm of a Greek crowd when one of their own athletes won the marathon, a French visitor, Charles Maurras, said insightfully to Coubertin: “I see your internationalism does not kill national spirit — it strengthens it!”

The second modern Olympiad, hosted by Paris in 1900, offered a further case in point. German athletes, puffed with patriotic pride themselves, were not exactly welcomed at Athens ‘96, but they were positively loathed by their French hosts. They encountered signs saying “Cochons — à bas la Prusse!” (Pigs — Down with Prussia). Team captain Fritz Hoffmann discovered a welcoming pile of excrement in his bed. Athletes and fans from all nationalities encountered extreme organizational dysfunction since the Paris Games functioned as a mere appendage to an international industrial and commercial exposition, which lasted five-and-a-half months and whose sponsors had no interest in sports. They padded the protracted athletic program with events like firefighting, croquet, fishing, and boules. Fencers were registered in the exposition’s cutlery competition, while rowers were relegated to commercial shipping. Javelin throwers competing in the leafy Bois de Boulogne park struggled to avoid skewering strolling lovers; sprinters had to run on the Bois’s undulating grassy surface; and marathoners ran who knows where because their winding course was poorly marked and largely unmonitored. Yet the marathoners had it better than the swimmers, whose competitions transpired in the stinking Seine.

However, and this is the intriguing part, neither fans nor athletes (excepting perhaps Fritz Hoffmann) seemed overly put out by the less-than-ideal arrangements. Like the Greeks four years earlier, French spectators put aside their daily troubles and cheered wildly when two countrymen finished in the top five in the marathon. Who cared if these men had taken a shortcut or maybe gotten a lift, as some American competitors uncharitably charged?

The Yanks, already touted for their efficiency, might have been expected to improve on Paris at the 1904 St. Louis Games, but this Olympiad also transpired under the aegis of a very long international exposition — the St. Louis World’s Fair, commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase — and proved to be a logistical nightmare. Fearing hostile American Indians, many Europeans stayed away. They mercifully missed, along with a lot of organizational confusion, a degrading sideshow called the “anthropology days,” involving various native peoples competing in their own games as well as in European-derived events — the purpose here being to highlight native inferiority to whites.

London 1908 was better organized than Paris but just as emblematic of that era’s open racism and chauvinism. British observers chided the Americans for including working-class Irishmen on their team (the criticism would have been even sharper had Team USA included any blacks). The Yanks, prodded by their Irish athletes, shockingly departed from a newly-minted “tradition” in the opening ceremony by not dipping their national flag like the other teams as they marched by the Olympic Honor Loge (occupied in this instance by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra). Later, the Americans attributed their poorer-than-expected results at London to biased judging by British officials. President Theodore Roosevelt eagerly embraced this view, as did revelers at an Olympic homecoming parade in New York City who beat up an effigy of the British lion.

It was spectacles like London 1908, and the even more virulently nationalistic “Nazi Games” of 1936, that prompted George Orwell to express amazement over the popular view “that [Olympic] sport creates goodwill between the nations … rather than orgies of hatred.”

The orgy of hatred culminating in World War I brought a temporary halt to the games, adding a new level of bogusness to the International Olympic Committee’s claim that their athletic festivals always transcended “politics.” Many observers thought that this charade could not, should not, resume after the war, but of course it did — albeit without participation by the disgraced former Central Powers in the first two postwar festivals. The reasons for resuming play in 1920 are revealing — and hold true today. Contradictorily, many Olympic advocates hoped the games might serve as a kind of sporting League of Nations, helping to bring feuding countries together in athletic arbitration; at the same time, folks wanted to wallow in that hot bath of nationalism these contests so richly afforded — and to wallow as well in the pleasure of excluding their former enemies from the pleasures of the tub. It was lucky for Antwerp 1920 that this kind of pleasure abounded because the hosts, having also just hosted four years of destructive carnage, were in no position to offer much in the way of creature comforts. Yet a few intrepid fans did find their way to impoverished Belgium, some of them voicing disdain for American Olympic whiners who bitched about hard bunks in their (YMCA) quarters and icy water in the pools.

It was one thing to stick it out at Olympiads low on amenities like Antwerp ‘20 and equally grim London 1948, justifiably labeled the “Austerity Games.” But what about festivals seared by genuine disaster such as, most infamously, Munich 1972? Following the murder of eleven Israeli Olympians by Palestinian commandos, IOC President Avery Brundage insisted “The Games Must Go On!” — and go on they did after just one day of mourning.

But should they have gone on? Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of athletes and fans believed the show must resume, and their reasons for thinking this way tell us something about how and why the Olympic enterprise survives amid adversity and even tragedy. In an informal post-massacre poll, a number of athletes said they wanted to continue competing “to show that understanding among peoples [was] still possible.” Others insisted that the terrorists must not be allowed to disrupt normal patterns of civilized life. Olympic fans said that now more than ever they needed to retrieve a focus on the noble and the good — and to “take a break” from the often sordid realities of daily existence.

Yet once again, of course, that desired distraction from sordid reality also involved competing for, or rooting for, one’s own side against demonized adversaries. This was certainly the case during those Cold War-era Olympics, epitomized by Munich ‘72, when fierce ideological rivals battled for bragging rights. Fans on both sides of the divide hungered for epic contests like the United States-Soviet Union basketball final in ‘72, a quintessential case of “war by other means.” The Yanks’ bitterly disputed loss in that contest generated hunger for revenge down the line. All this made for great TV ratings and huge television-rights sales for the IOC, which had actually been facing penury before this bonanza came along in the 1970s.

At Munich ‘72 no one, not even the Americans, wanted revenge against Olga Korbut, the diminutive 17-year-old Belarusian gymnast who endeared herself to a global audience through spectacular success, humiliating failure (punctuated by tears), and finally renewed success on an even grander scale. Korbut’s gritty performance constituted a breakthrough not only for her but for female gymnasts in general. Since Munich no Olympiad has gone by without some tiny woman-child tumbling into the limelight. Such breakthrough stories in previously unheralded sports are yet another reason for the Olympics’ longevity. Uniquely, the Olympic enterprise features a wide variety of sporting events — from skating and skiing to swimming and running — that ordinary duffers pursue recreationally all around the globe. Naturally, they identify with Olympic athletes competing in “their” events, even if those athletes are not from their own country. (I secretly see myself as Usain Bolt.) Here, then, really is a way in which these Games do what their backers claim they do: transcend nationalism.

We will undoubtedly continue to see fleeting moments of feel-good togetherness at Olympic festivals — new variants on German broad-jumper Lutz Long’s bonding with Jesse Owens at Berlin ‘36, the North and South Koreans marching together in the opening ceremony at Sidney 2000 — but the chief take-home message will invariably be who won the national medal count.

After all, the ideological animosities of the Cold War era may have ebbed but nationalism clearly has not. On the contrary, it is powerfully reasserting itself around the globe in the face of transnational entities’ failure to adequately address the chief challenges of our time. The Olympics have always reflected, even magnified, the passions of the moment. Charles Maurras’s observation regarding the triumph of nationalism at Athens 1896 would be just as apposite for Rio 2016.

Photo credit: Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

David Clay Large is a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many books are Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936; Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games; and, most recently, The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art, and Healing.

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