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The Olympics as Nationalist Theater The Olympics pitches itself as a two-week suspension of politics in the name of "universal morality". In truth, the Olympics have been since their inception an arena for the contestation and consolidation of nationalism



The Olympics as Nationalist Theater

By Isaac Souweine 

The Olympics pitches itself as a two-week suspension of politics in the name of "universal morality". In truth, the Olympics have been since their inception a crucial arena for the contestation and consolidation of nationalist politics in all of its many forms.


The Olympics are a “celebration of humanity”, a realm of pure athletic competition insulated from the tarnished world of politics. The idea has a cheerful sort of mass appeal. Lost within the idealistic glow, however, is an understanding of the Olympics’ role in modern history.

Far from being accidentally “marred” by politics, the Olympic Games were created and sustained by political forces – primarily nationalism in both liberal and socialist forms – which have habitually used the Olympic theater as an arena for contesting the shape of the international order.

The tradition of Olympic politics is a venerable one. In ancient Greece, city-states fought for control over the Olympic temples and used athletic victories in the Games to establish prestige. The first modern Olympic revivals, contested four times between 1859 and 1885 under the leadership of a Greek philanthropist named Evangelis Zappas, were crucial moments in the consolidation of a newly minted Greek state. Indeed, the history of modern organized sports – most of which took their present form in the mid nineteenth century – is inseparable from the politics of nineteenth century nationalism: gymnastics (now physical education) was pioneered in Germany and Sweden as a way of strengthening national armies, while the English aristocracy understood rugby and cricket as proper training for colonial service.

Enter the founder of the modern Olympics, a French aristocrat named Pierre de Coubertin who thought that organized sport would be a boon to French soldiers, whom to his mind lacked vigor on the battlefield. Not content with developing French sporting culture, Coubertin envisioned a festival of international competition between nations. Though well aware that such a venue would serve mostly to strengthen national rivalries, Coubertin effectively packaged his Olympic brainchild (largely filched from Zappas sans attribution) in the internationalist rhetoric of the day: “Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of Peace will have received a new and strong ally.” Coubertin is also famous for his vigorous defense of Olympic amateurism, a seemingly commendable ideal that, among other things, cleared the way for a nationalist monopoly over Olympic bodies and their symbolic power.


In their first forty years - from Athens (1896) to Munich (1936) - the Olympics solidified their identity as the pre-eminent international theater of nationalism. While predictable in retrospect, this development was not inevitable. In the inaugural Athens Games, athletes wore club uniforms instead of national ones, and a local capitalist footed the bill for the entire games, as the price tag was beyond the reach of the fledgling Greek state. The next two Olympics, in Paris

(1900) and St. Louis (1904), were both overshadowed by the era’s pre- eminent sphere for the performance of the nation – The World’s Fair.

After this shaky start, however, the Olympics soon found their nationalist stride. 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. The development of Olympic symbols demarcating a neutral sphere of peace, fellowship and international fraternity was slightly more regular - the Olympic Flag and Oath appearing at the Antwerp Games (1920); the Olympic Flame at the Amsterdam Games (1928) and the Olympic Torch Relay at the Berlin Games (1936). Presided over by Hitler and an ascendant Nazi party in full regalia, the Berlin Games provided a twisted culmination to this period of Olympic nationalist theater, a performance immortalized in Leni Riefensthal’s phenomenal and disturbing film Olympia.


With the return to the Olympics of Russian athletes absent since 1912, the Helsinki Games (1952) represented a major shift in the character of the Olympics as nationalist theater. For the next thirty odd years, the Games would be waged as contests for international superiority between communism and capitalism. While communist countries achieved a more crushing monopoly over their athletes’ bodies, which became laboratories for testing the power of the socialist state, both sides used this ever more crucial venue for elaborate performances of national superiority and visceral identification of national enemies.

Rather than an aberrant defiance of the Games’ essence then, the decision by Eastern Block athletes to eschew the hospitality of the Helsinki Olympic village is better understood as the first salvo in a contest that would culminate in the back-to-back Olympic boycotts in Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984).

While the battle between capitalism and communism was the main act in this period of Olympic theater, it was not the only one; the post-war Olympics also provided a space to affirm and define a new broader international community. In acknowledgement of the bigger, broader


war world, the IOC began awarding the Games to sites outside the European-American nexus: Melbourne (1956), Tokyo (1964), Mexico City (1968). Meanwhile, dozens of newly created post-colonial nations, many of which had specious histories as unique cultural or political units, used the Olympics to assert their identities on a world stage. The nature of Olympic competition, in which a single athlete from a small nation could symbolically defeat the entire world, merely added to the symbolic effect, though medals for fledgling states remained scarce.

The new international community also used the Olympics to dictate rules for membership, most famously in the exclusion of South Africa (1960-

1992) and Rhodesia (1972), both for apartheid politics. More common than official sanction by the IOC, which after all remained an institution ‘above politics’, was the use of the Olympic boycott as a way of contesting the shape of the international community. A shockingly long list, the roll-call of Olympic refusniks in the post- war period includes: Arab nations protesting Israeli militarism (1956); African nations protesting New Zealand’s S. Africa rugby tour (1976); China for various reasons (1932-1984), and of course the massive boycotts in Moscow and Los Angeles. This litany of boycotts stands in sharp contrast to the near full attendance at the 1936 Games, during which the world community left it to Jesse Owens’ memorable four-gold performance to register a silent protest against the Nazi regime.

Even as it affirmed he centrality of the nation state, the development of a fully realized Olympic national theater created a space for challenges to national hegemony. The Mexico City Games (1968) were most memorable in this regard, with American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos saluting their flag with black-gloved fists and Vera Caslavaska, gold medal winning Czech gymnast, lowering her head during the playing of her anthem only months after signing a manifesto against Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia. In staunch defense of its apolitical stage for nationalist politics, the IOC quickly expelled the American sprinters, chasing them with the ironic claim that “The basic principle of the Olympic Games is that politics plays no part whatsoever in

them.” A more chilling and contemporarily relevant example of the

Olympics as anti-national spectacle occurred at the Munich Games (1972), when PLO operatives kidnapped eleven Israeli athletes and

officials, all of whom died during a bungled rescue attempt.


While today’s Olympics still function as the great theater of nationalism, the meaning of the performance has shifted to revolve around global consumer capitalism’s appropriation of ‘national brands’.

Though athletes are still clothed, draped and serenaded with their nation’s symbols, the significance of these performances now has as much to do with their marketing potential as their geo-political ramifications. Meanwhile, host nations use the Olympics to perform their unique national cultures for the world while simultaneously asserting their ability to participate in the international economic system. Inherently erotic Olympic bodies, once monopolized by the ideological needs of nation states, are now fodder for an intensely sexualized capitalist system that lays equal claim to professional Olympic athletes and their close cousins, amateurs-with-endorsement.

First covered fully by television in Rome (1960), the Olympics’

transition to nationalist media spectacle began in earnest in 1984, when Peter Uberoth, of National Football League fame, secured the first Olympic corporate sponsors for the second Los Angeles Games. Four years later, the Seoul Olympics (1988) saw the first official appearance of professional athletes, as well as the first well-marketed Olympic mascot – a cute tiger perfect for mugs and t-shirts. By the time the Olympics arrived in Barcelona (1992), the transition was complete.

Commencing with a fabulous opening ceremonies that brazenly presented Spain as the center of European culture, Barcelona offered a compelling theater for a new internationalist capitalism that saw nation states as just one cog in a larger system of globalizing profit. No longer sullied by apartheid or the Cold War, Barcelona was a boycott-free, ostensibly politics-free arena for the production of capitalist sporting spectacle.

Twelve years later, the Athens Games will seek to raise the bar further. For the hosts, the Games will offer a chance to perform their uniquely Olympic national culture in an extended add for, while hopefully debunking rumors of a small nation’s inability to stage such a massive event. Satellite television will beam the images of Athens 2004 to billions worldwide, with table tennis slated to be the most watched final, during which TV executives will be caught in candid shots drooling at the mere mention of Beijing 2008. During slow moments, readers of FHM magazine (and surely internet users around the globe) will devour photos of America’s female Olympians. While the Athens Olympics will remain a theater in which nations use the their athletes’ bodies to consolidate their national bodies, the best competitors will now be brands in their own right, even as the interpretation of citizenship for top athletes grows ever more flexible. As for once troublesome boycotts, they will be replaced by a worldwide obsession with the newest sub-national threat to the international status quo – terrorism.


In many ways, the Olympics present the best that the international order had to offer. An aesthetically beautiful sublimation of nationalist competition, the Olympics can engender a commendably inclusive form of communalism, as in the planned appearance in Athens of two Afghani female athletes. At their best, the Olympics even foster a sense of fair play and universal morality that exceed the exclusivist assumptions of the nation state. As for the Olympic alliance with global capitalism, athletics is a far more wholesome product than most of what is available on the world market, both in terms of the actual product of spectator sports and the attendant increase in athletic participation at all levels.

None of which is to say that we should mislead ourselves about the inherent limitations of Olympic theater. The Olympics’ seemingly innocuous performances of nationalist aggression inevitably pave the way for less benign reprisals outside of the stadium. Moreover, in allying ever more closely with global capitalism, the Olympics foster a particular sort of economic globalization that has little capacity for the creation of a just economic order. To put it another way, if the Olympics occasionally perform a better, more wholesome international order, they have little ability to think outside the boundaries in which that order is conceived. Nor does the Olympics’ disavowal of politics mitigate the problem; if anything, this formal neutrality merely increases the power of their implicit affirmation of the status quo.

To accept the notion that the Olympics are or should be somehow outside of politics is to engage in idealistic self-deception. Nationalism, in both liberal and socialist forms, has literally and symbolically created our Olympic athletes and the stage upon which they perform.

While this fact does not erase the phenomenal sporting feats achieved by Olympic athletes, it nevertheless bears remembering as another version of the Olympic theater unfolds.

Isaac Souweine currently lives in Rajasthan, India where he studies Hindi and modern Indian politics.


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