The lessons for nationalism of the London Olympics

The London Olympics turned out to be an unqualified success, to the surprise of nearly all observers. What can they teach us about the dynamics of nationalism?

The Olympics present an unparalleled opportunity for countries to indulge in a display of nationalism on an international stage. They represent the acceptable face of nationalism – “good nationalism” – in contrast to its usual associations with xenophobia, ethnic conflict, war and genocide. The Olympics has been what Isaac Souweine describes as “nationalist theater” since its inception. He writes that “In the first London Games (1908), athletes marched into the stadium behind their respective flags; though not before the English and Russians tried to prevent the Irish and Finns from displaying their colors. The nationalist symbology of the Games would not be complete, however, until the first Los Angles Games (1932) introduced the now familiar victory ceremonies in which medal winners stand on a victory podium while flags fly and anthems play.” It was also tinged with racism – the International Olympic Committee originally explained that the colors of the five rings (blue, red, yellow, black and green) represented the five continents. In 1951 it changed its story, saying the colors were merely taken from national flags.

The Olympics build a sense of national pride and unity, a distraction from economic difficulties and from ethnic, regional and sectarian divisions. While it is nice for a country like Jamaica to get some international recognition for the success of its sprinters, the most important audience is the one back home. The effect is particularly marked for the host country itself.

Beijing and London present an interesting comparison. China was a newly emerging power that used the 2008 Games to announce that it had arrived as a modern successful power. They not only organized a flawless games, but also topped the medals table with 51 gold to the US’s 36 (though the US was stil ahead in total medals, by 110 to 100).

In contrast Britain was a disoriented, aging, fallen power that used the 2012 Games to demonstrate that it still had something to teach the world. It became clear from the outset – with Danny Boyle’s stunning opening ceremony – that hosting the Olympics gives the home country a unique opportunity to project itself on the international stage. A patriotic delirium descended across Britain. This atmosphere was nurtured by a skillful campaign that went way beyond the ceremonies in the main stadium. Prior to the Games, the Olympic torch went on a lengthy and sinuous tour of United Kingdom, creating a multitude of media opportunities to highlight local communities – and serving to connect them to the national Olympic project. After the Games, someone came up with the idea of painting mailboxes gold in the home towns of medal winners.

What was interesting about London was that it showed how a country can seize the unique occasion to redefine itself – not merely to replicate traditional symbols of identity, but to innovate in a way that seems likely to have a lasting effect on public perceptions at home and abroad. 23 million Britons watched the Opening Ceremony, along with a global audience of one billion, and as Simon Kuper argues it offered a comprehensive rebranding of Britain as an easygoing, multicultural and cosmopolitan project, far removed from Thatcher’s military prowess (in the wake of the Falklands) and Tony Blair’s inchoate high-tech vision.

Olympic nationalism is not free of contradictions. The downside was illustrated by the 2004 Athens Games – a poorly organized event can showcase the host country’s deficiencies; just as back in 1980 the boycott of the Moscow Olympics drew attention to the Soviet Union’s international isolation. A poor showing in the medals table can ignite national doubt and a search for scapegoats, and occasionally inter-national rivalries do surface at the Games (see following sections).

Increasingly, nationalism at the Olympics finds itself in competition with commercialization. Alongside the national flag, each athlete must wear the brand of their equipment gear sponsor, while the events themselves were saturated with advertisements for the main corporate backers. Eleven corporations (Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa etc.) paid $100 million each over a four-year period, in return for which they had exclusive rights to display their brand at the Games. Activists in India and Vietnam – along with the AFL-CIO – protested the presence of corporate sponsors such as Dow Chemical and Rio Tinto Zinc. The role of corporations is redoubled after the games, when medal winners can expect lucrative sponsorship deals. The IOC itself is the worst offender for commercialization, aggressively protecting its right to use of the Olympic symbols – as in the case of the English butcher forced to take down sausages shaped to form the Olympic rings.

The significance of the medals table

It is not only the host country that plays the Olympics for nationalism – every participant’s team wraps itself in their respective flags. All 204 countries and territories that participate in the Games seize the chance to have their moment in the international arena, even though 73 of them have never won a single medal. In 2012 Grenada won its first ever medal – a gold in the men’s 400m, while Montenegro won its first with a silver in women’s handball, causing no doubt jubilation in Podgorica. Particular attention is focused on team sports, which directly pit nation against nation, even though they do not count for much in the aggregate medals table.

A great deal of national pride hangs on one’s ranking in the medals table (traditionally the IOC uses golds as the main ranking, while the US uses total medal count). Despite finishing in second place with 38 gold and 88 total medals China was disappointed by its overall performance: anything after Beijing would be a let-down. Individual failures were taken hard: the New York Times reported that “A weightlifter sobbed on national TV that he had ‘disgraced the motherland’ for only getting a silver medal.”

The worst performer, as measured by number of medals compared to size of population or GDP, was India, who won a mere six medals, including two silvers. Brazil, the 2016 host, did not do so well either, winning 17 medals, of which three were gold. South Korea was very happy with its 13 golds. A  Korean newspaper helpfully produced a world map showing each country’s size adjusted for their medal count. With its sixth place finish, this exercise made Korea much more visible on the map than it is based on territory alone.

Even finishing first is not, apparently, enough for some US observers. President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haas took the results as evidence that US hegemony is eroding, since her 104 medals represent only 11% of the total – but he took some comfort from China’s medal count was down from its Beijing peak. Meanwhile Fox News was complaining that the Olympics were not patriotic enough, criticizing the gold-winning gymnast Gaby Douglas for wearing a pink leotard and not stars-and-stripes colors.  

If there was a gold medal for buck-passing it would be won by Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko. Mutko complained of cheating by boxing judges, and he blamed health and education ministries for not cooperating with his ministry. Russia finished in fourth place with 24 golds (behind Britain with 29), and third in total medals with 88. This is impressive given Russia’s 142 million population, but still its worst performance since the Soviet Union first entered the games in 1952. And this came in the wake of Russia’s dismal 11th-place finish at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Had there still been a unified team with all the former Soviet states, it would have won first place in London– with 46 gold and 155 medals.

Home country advantage

There is of course a literal home country advantage – the host nation tends to win 50 percent more medals than it did in previous Olympics. Britain saw its gold total rise from 19 in Beijing to 29 in London – a third place finish. In Seoul in 1988 South Korea won more gold medals than West Germany and landed in fourth place in the medal count. Likewise Australia placed fourth in Sydney in 2000. Somewhat ironically, given the super-charged patriotism of the US, the one case where there was no host-country boost was Atlanta in 1996.

There are various explanations about why this occurs. One obvious factor is that host countries pour a lot of money into building up their own sports teams to ensure a good showing. The UK had stepped up its spending on Olympic sports, using funds from the National Lottery and other sources, after its dismal performance in the 1996 Atlanta Games. In recent decades China has developed a comprehensive national strategy of selecting and training promising athletes from a very young age.

It might also be supposed that enthusiastic support from the home crowd may boost the athletes’ performance. However, an alternative explanation was offered by Nigel Balmer of University College London in an interview with NPR. Analyzing performance in different types of sports, Balmer concludes that the home country advantage is heavily concentrated in subjectively measured sports like gymnastics, diving and dressage, and is barely found in sports where there is a clear objective winner, such as track or swimming races. He surmises that the judges are being swayed by the home crowd.

A break from politics?

In the original ancient Olympics, warfare was suspended for the duration of the Games. During the modern Games, to some degree there is a suspension of partisan politics (both domestic and international) – something that clears the air for displays of feel-good symbolic unity.

There were only a handful of minor examples of politicization during the London Games. Queen guitarist Brian May got into trouble with the English hunting lobby for wearing badges of a fox and a badger. In the run-up to the Games, there was outrage in the US Congress that Team America’s Ralph Loren uniforms were made by Team China.

A South Korean footballer was stripped of his gold medal after he held up a sign following South Korea’s 2-0 victory over Japan, claiming South Korean sovereignty over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands. The Korea Times reported that angry bloggers flooded the web with anti-Chinese messages after it was falsely reported that a Chinese judge had disqualified a Korean swimmer. When the North Korean football team marched onto the field before a first-round game against Colombia in Glasgow, the stadium’s video boards flashed an image of the South Korean flag. The North Koreans turned and left the field.

Which sports are included?

The question of which sports to include in the Olympics in the first place is itself a hotly contested issue. Brining a new sport into the Games can boost national pride – and increase an outsider nation’s medal chances if they throw resources into that sport.

The advent of judo at the 1964 Tokyo games was the first time a non-European sport was accepted by the Olympic community. Others followed, such as Korea’s taekwondo and more recently the Japanese paced-cycling event known as keirin (both added in 2000). (To qualify, a sport must be practiced in at least 75 countries in four continents.) Baseball and softball were added in 1992, then dropped in 2012 because of the US dominance in these sports. Golf and rugby were discontinued but are coming back in 2016. Indians complain that cricket is still excluded, while China is lobbying for the martial art of wushu.


1 thought on “The lessons for nationalism of the London Olympics

  1. The Olympic experience is an eye opener for many states from various perspectives. Of them , of course India’s pathetic position is one. Only six medals, that too majority bronze speaks out her lag in athletics. No gold won remains a national shame. But will that change the state policy towards games and sports? Will there be attempts to create new gymnatium in numbers, by the state, or by those sponsors who are so keen on advertisement?! While theolympics were going on every day there was brewing tension on who could be a potential winner of a medal, be that bronze or silver. Each of the players got their names in headlines, even in regional language news papers in the front page, whether they won or lost! May be for the first time they got this recognition, people got to know their names……..and each of the players who could make it or even failed to do so did it by their own private efforts.
    And once the game ended they are stale news to the nation. To be a cricketer is a matter of great prospect in this land, but no other game, not any kind of athletics!

    However small may be the achievements of the medal winners in terms of ranking, its an uphill task for the players. Hats off to undaunted spirit of Merry Come, a brave lady from a far flung province of Manipore which was more discussed for her political unrest than for her cultural contribution ever since the ancient times. She has been an eye opener to the Indian government to bring her homage to the nation which had not been very kind to her land and people for about decades…….There are hundreds of potential Merry Comes awaiting some encouragement. The most unexplored area of Indian talent is in the field of sports. Hope the shameful experience helps India to chalk out a conscious policy towards sports and its development.

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