Published August 11, 2012
LONDON – Given the depths of his anguish, you might have thought Wu Jingbiao had lost a loved one. Heaving with shame, the double world champion weightlifter wept like a child in the arms of the TV reporter interviewing him.
"I let my country down," he sobbed. "I let the Chinese weightlifting team down. I let everyone who has cared about me down. I am sorry."
He had won the silver medal.
Organizers insist that the Olympic movement exalts individual achievement, not national pride or prowess. Look at the official Olympic website: There is no medal table. The International Olympic Committee doesn't keep count.
Yet nationalism has infused the Olympics — at its origins in ancient Greece, at its height during the Cold War and still strongly in London in 2012. So it's only natural that at this most global event unfolding in this most multinational of cities, questions of national identity and the very essence of nationhood arise.
Partisan hooligans don't roam Olympic Park, it's true. But a more benign form of patriotism can be found everywhere, from the Legoland of flag-draped apartments in the athletes village to Britain's promotion of fish and chips at Olympic food carts.
That is not by chance. The Olympic opening ceremony alone is designed to show off the host country's cultural and historic greatness, while the parade of nations groups athletes into uniform blocks marching behind flags. The flag-and-anthem ceremonies for every medal drive home the message that personal best and national pride very much share the podium.
Let's not forget the spectators: In the stands, they're draped head to toenail in national flags, waving them, wearing them, wrapping themselves in them. At home, armchair Olympians are fed feel-good stories of national hopefuls and heroes, almost to the exclusion of the actual winners and losers.
"The fascination of the Olympics is that there's a slight mismatch between what the organizers want and what the spectators want," says Martin Polley, an Olympic historian at the University of Southampton. "The IOC values system is clearly very out of step with everybody else's version."
Take the Olympic Charter itself, the statement of the very principles of the games: "The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries," it reads.
Tell that to China's state-controlled Guangming Daily newspaper, which has complained of anti-Chinese bias in the judging of men's gymnastics.
The picture gets complicated when the athletes' own identities come into question.
These days, athletes can swap citizenship almost more easily than corporate sponsors. They marry, move for better access to training or simply accept offers to compete for other nations. The three Kazakh women who won golds in weightlifting are all foreign imports. Only three of the 16 teams in women's table tennis didn't feature a player born in China. A Chinese-born woman played for the Republic of Congo.
While those may be extreme examples, few nations can claim to field exclusively homegrown teams. In Britain, the debate over so-called "plastic Brits," or competitors of convenience, raged for months in the run-up to the games.
Yamile Aldama, a British triple jumper, was pilloried in the local press for competing for her native Cuba in 2000 and Sudan in 2004 and 2008, after her British citizenship application stalled, and finally Britain in 2012. She had hometown support last week in Olympic Stadium, but she managed only fifth place.
By contrast, Mo Farah — who moved to Britain as a child from his native Somalia and grew up in the British sports system — was treated as a national hero after he won the 10,000 meters.
"If it wasn't for the crowd and people shouting out my name and putting the Union Jack up, I don't think it would have happened," he said after his win.
Shara Proctor competed for Britain as well, even though she lives in Florida and hails from Anguilla, a Caribbean island of 15,500 people close to Puerto Rico. But Anguilla, like several former British colonies, doesn't have an IOC-approved national Olympic committee, leaving her without an Anguillan flag under which to compete.
Four athletes in London faced similar problems because of their nations' unresolved status in the world, and are competing under the Olympic flag. Three hail from Curacao and found themselves in a bind following the 2010 breakup of the Netherlands Antilles. Despite not having an approved hometown flag, they made a memorable entrance at the opening ceremony, dancing, jumping and striking the occasional Usain Bolt-style pose.
Guor Marial doesn't have a country, either. The marathoner, who will compete Sunday on the final day of the Olympics, was given the right to compete under the Olympic flag after fleeing a refugee camp in what is now South Sudan. The world's newest country doesn't yet have an Olympic team. Marial is a permanent resident of the United States but not yet a citizen.
"Representing the five rings is the best," he said. "I'm representing the whole world, basically."
One has to wonder how that might have struck the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The French aristocrat proposed reviving the Olympic movement in 1892, hoping to rally French pride through sports after the country's devastating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. The first modern Olympics was staged four years later.
De Coubertin saw international sports "as a less tragically inclined form of national rivalry," says Alan Tomlinson, professor of leisure studies at the University of Brighton and editor of "Watching the Olympics: Politics, Power and Representation."
De Coubertin came up with the Olympic motto — "Faster, higher, stronger" — thinking it would inspire individual competitors. "But it's also a motto that can be used at a national level," Tomlinson notes.
In fact much of the symbolism surrounding de Coubertin's revived Olympics laid bare the nationalistic sentiments at play at the turn of the last century, albeit under the guise of peaceful internationalism.
The five interlocking rings of the Olympic flag represent the union of the five continents, but the blue, yellow, green, red and black colors of the rings were selected because they were found in the national flags of Olympic countries at the 1920 Antwerp Games, where the flag made its debut.
The original Athlete's Oath, also introduced in Antwerp, was changed in the 1960s to remove the original pledge to compete "for the honor of our country." Athletes now pledge to compete "for the honor of our teams."
"We want individuals to bring out the best in themselves through sport," says Mark Adams, an IOC spokesman. "The whole nationalism thing doesn't come into it for us. That happens to be the world we live in and how sport is organized, but it's not our mission."
There is perhaps good reason why the IOC plays down the nationalistic aspect of the Olympics: It happens anyway.
Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Games to try to exalt the superiority of his Aryan athletes, but was upstaged by Jesse Owens' four gold medals. The decade that followed showed just what nationalism meant in the hands of someone like Hitler.
The Cold War produced the tit-for-tat boycotts of the 1980s: The U.S. persuaded more than 60 other nations to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets responded in kind four years later by boycotting the Los Angeles Games.
Even today, Taiwan isn't allowed to use its flag or its name at the Olympics. The self-governing island, which China regards as a renegade province, is identified as Chinese Taipei.
Despite the inevitable intrusion of politics and national pride in sports, de Coubertin was convinced that the Olympics could contribute to international peace, says John Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.
"The idea of having rotating host countries was that you will stay in a country that you may be conditioned to hate — but may be conditioned to respect" after the experience, he notes.
The observance of the Olympic Truce, to suspend warfare, dates from the Olympics' ancient Greek origins, when it was needed to ensure safe passage of all athletes to and from the games. The release of doves as a symbol of peace was also a prominent, age-old feature in opening ceremonies — until several of them went up in flames after settling on the rim of the Olympic cauldron just before it was lit at the Seoul Games in 1988.
Andy Miah, a professor of culture, ethics and technology at the University of West Scotland, says one of the legacies of the Olympics will be a continued debate about identity and nationhood, and what it means to belong.
He notes that the "host-nation nationalism" that has been on such display during the games is unlike anything Britain has witnessed, and is particularly significant given that Team GB is composed of athletes from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Says Miah: "We can look at this as a catalyst for discussions of political identity — and about ourselves."
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