I’ve never been much of a sports fan: the main allure of the Super Bowl for me is the commercials, and although I’m from Long Island, I’d be hard pressed to name you more than a handful of athletes who play for New York teams.
It was therefore a shock when I found myself screaming at my Korean-American roommate last night over the merits of Korean speed skater Tae-Bum Mo and whether he would best American Shani Davis in the Men’s 1500 meter event. I had never seen or heard of Davis before last night, nor had I ever felt as much shame over the results of a sporting event as when Dutch skater Mark Tuitert won the gold (by .53 seconds! Damn those clog-wearing tulip-lovers!).
My point here is that while I’ve never been a lover of athletic activity and have always been cynical of flag waving and the whole “These colors don’t run” mentality, the Olympics has succeeded in making me proud of my country’s achievements, even if these particular achievements are meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
The whole idea of the Olympics inciting nationalist fervor is, admittedly, pretty silly. These athletes’ nationalities are arbitrary; they could have been born in and competed for any country on the globe. Not only that, but the logic of being proud to be an American because a guy from my country can beat a guy from your country in a race around an ice track is ludicrous. Nonetheless, although I don’t want to buy into the the Olympic-sized bombast that accompanies the games (all those commercials about the world’s best competing for blah blah blah, etc.), there’s something reassuring in the simplicity of the Olympics.
The kind of multinational conflicts we see played out on the snowy slopes of Vancouver are very different from the kinds we see on the nightly news; we even get angry when people inject politics into the Olympic ceremony. Maybe it’s because we believe that the Olympics really are everything they makes themselves out to be, or maybe it’s because we want to believe that the Olympics are everything they make themselves out to be.
Yet with all of this in mind, sports nationalism and political nationalism are troublingly similar in their consequences. How many times have we heard horror stories about deaths after an international soccer match in which fans were trampled in riots or killed in fights? Likewise, the Olympics has been the stage for political violence in the past, the most famous instance of which is probably the infamous killings in Munich during the 1972 Summer games.
There’s an uncomfortable disconnect when political strife works its way into settings that are meant to be emphatically apolitical, and we don’t really know what to do with it. Debates abound almost every year the games are held as to whether or not so-and-so should be able to compete for whatever reason, and I think it’s because for some crazy, irrational reason, we all really, really care about whether the guy from my country can beat the guy from your country in a competition that showcases nothing about either country’s actual value.
I don’t know if the Olympic games create unity or divide or or are political or aren’t, but at this midway point in this strange international ritual, I think we should all recognize the odd and somewhat juvenile Olympic paradox that the competition a) matters and b) is completely absurd. So if, in the upcoming week, you find yourself yelling at a friend of yours about which country’s representative is better than the others at sliding down a mountain on two flat pieces of plastic, my advice is this: take a breather, have a laugh, then continue to rip each other’s heads off.
(P.S. Whatever, Netherlands. We still have Apolo.)