Sport, Nationalism, and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games: ‘War Minus the Shooting’?

Syrian refugee Hanan Dacka after taking part in the 2016 Olympic Games torch relay in Brasilia, Brazil, on May 3rd, 2016. © UNHCR/Gabo Morales.

By Timothy D. Sisk for Denver Dialogues

Recent revelations by The New York Times of alleged state-involvement by Russia in doping cover-ups at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games – ostensibly to reflect power and dominance in the international arena – reaffirm that sport, nationalism, and the Olympic Games are deeply inter-related. Indeed, Russia as host country did win the most number of gold medals and overall medals ahead of the United States and Norway. Sordidly, after the Games any glow of global unity were ephemerally lost following Russian intervention in Ukraine… an “Olympic Diversion,” as Barnard scholar Kimberly Merten contends. Some have called for Russia to be disallowed to participate in upcoming Rio Games of XXXI Olympiad.

The Olympic Games is a presented as celebration of human achievement and youth capabilities, yet the biennial sporting festival often falls prey to political agendas seeking to express the virtue of the “nation,” the superiority of the economic, social, or cultural system, and the project of power in the international arena. Does international sport, and the Olympic Games in particular, really contribute to peace?

There are longstanding concerns about sport’s ability to contribute to peace. In 1948, after a “friendly” visit of the Moscow Dynamos football club to war-ravaged Britain, writer George Orwell cautioned about the ability of international sport to peace… citing social psychological orientations that posit people need an identity somehow bigger or more “sacred” than themselves as individuals. Orwell acerbically observed that sport contributes mostly to nationalistic ill-feeling, writing:

“At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behavior of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue… it is war minus the shooting.”

With the Rio Summer Olympic Games on the horizon for August 5-21, 2016, how will the fallouts from state-led doping at the Sochi Games, and the broader problems of sport and nationalism at the Olympic Games, play out in Brazil? With political turmoil given the impeachment proceedings against suspended President Dilma Rouseff, economic dislocation in a contracting economy, armed violence and frequent victimization, environmental pressure on natural resources, the outbreak of the Zika virus health crisis, a Petrobras corruption crisis, and with longstanding social mobilization against intractable inequality and widespread public corruption, Brazil’s position as host country is historically perilous.

The relationships between sport, nationalism, and the Olympics seen in the past can inform understanding – and perhaps some couch-potato thinking while watching the Games on TV – about the “nationalism” dramatics that are likely to unfold in the forthcoming 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. In Brazil, sport – and particularly football (aka soccer) – have been integral to defining national identity and fostering social cohesion; at the same time, hosting the celebrated World Cup in Brazil in 2014 precipitated protests and featured cost overruns, unfulfilled development promises, and a sense of unnecessary extravagance.

The Olympics and the “Virtue of the Nation”

Nationalism is in the DNA of the modern Olympic Games. Historically, sport emerged from preparation for warfare, and mass, international sport initially reflected competition among the youth of nations (mostly men) to demonstrate national or collective capabilities. The modern Olympic Games were created in the late 19th Century in an age of nationalism in Europe, and more particularly in France in the wake of its humiliating loss in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Baron Pierre de Coubertin – founder of the modern games who is buried at the headquarters and museum of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland – but whose heart is buried in Olympia, Greece (where the mythical thunderbolt of Zeus touched earth) – viewed sport as central to education attainment and youth development.

The purposes of the Olympics-among-nations revival of the games in the 19th century were laudable: mostly non-violent sport could replace war. Even today, the International Olympic Committee and U.N General Assembly calls for an “Olympic Truce” during the Games, although to date it still does not seem to have been heard, much less headed, in mostly civil war battlefields around the world.

From the very beginning of the Olympics, the organization of teams along national lines was the leitmotif around the “invention” of the norms, institutions, rituals, and traditions of the Olympic Games. In the very first games of the modern era, in 1896, Crown Prince of Greece Constantine (later King), ran wildly onto the track in the marbled Olympic Stadium to run the final lap of the marathon with the Greek athlete Spiridon Louis to claim the title of first modern Olympic marathon champion (warning had been given by a cyclist that a Greek was in the lead). The deep association between Olympic success and nationalism had begun.

In Olympic history, the nationalism story is a complex one: the Olympic Games are invariably deeply related to the politics of the host country, great power rivalry, and individual political expression by individual athletes. Echoes of nationalism and games from the past are many, and varied. Among the most notable historically are the Nazi-contrived 1936 Berlin Olympic Games,[1] but the nationalism-Olympic ties also have played out vividly in many other games. The triumphalist post-war 1948 Games in London, Melbourne’s’ “Cold War” 1956 Games, re-emergent Tokyo in 1964, Mexico City in tumultuous 1968, the harrowing and surreal Games of 1972 in Munich, and – fast forward to the 21st Century – the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games and the celebration-of-the-broad-masses Beijing Games of 2008 were all deeply infused with nationalist fervor. Perhaps no moment is more forgettable than the Black September attack on the Olympic Village in Munich, 1972, by Palestinian nationalist on September 5th that killed 17 in a kidnap and torture attack on the Israeli wrestling team. Nationalism invades the Olympics from both inside and outside the Games.

There is reason to be concerned for Rio, and real possibilities that these Olympic Games may make international relations somehow worse, rather than better. And they could do very little for Brazil and Rio.

What can we expect in Rio?

First, hosting the Olympics always puts the spotlight on the politics, and society, of the host nation. In Rio, it seems likely that while the political and economic crises will taint the Games, at the end of the day the Olympics will present Brazil an opportunity to express its diversity and underlying social cohesion and identity as a “nation” in stark contrast to other racially divided societies. It has a lot to offer, particularly as a model on social relations around race, inclusivity, and the need to assure development opportunities of the poorest of the poor. The Opening Ceremonies are always a matter of constructing and presenting, culturally, a national narrative and articulation of a country’s common destiny. That, in and of itself, should help contribute to social cohesion going forward now that the twin events of the 2014 World Cup and the Olympic Games will pass.

Second, the Olympics themselves are a “secular religion;” the 2016 Rio Games will perpetuate the Olympic spectacle… itself an “invented tradition” of ritual that is the result of evolution and invention in an age of nationalism. National passions will be on the stage in Rio in myriad ways: China will want to best the U.S. for overall medals, and the U.S. will want to best the Russians for pride purposes, and the Algerians will want to finish better than the Egyptians for regional hegemony, and Pakistan will hope to best India for the very sake of it. Rio may well remind us of Orwell’s assertion in the 1948 essay that nationalism is a “lunatic” modern habit if the virtue of the nation is at stake over a sporting event, at least in terms of counting medals.

Finally, whatever challenges Brazil may face in pulling off the Olympics, the ensuing Games offer to be a strong counterpoint to Sochi… a story of inclusion and democracy (however struggling) from a vibrant Brazil, and a re-affirmation from the Olympic Movement that at the end of the day the Olympics should be more about global human rights than national medal counts. Inequality had been decreasing in Brazil prior to the deep recession that has led to a sharply declining economy – including a 3.8% contraction in 2015. At the same time, Brazil’s social mores and national identity are increasingly of inclusion and concern for indigenous minorities, the Amazon, and the plight of the extreme poor. Indeed, its political turbulence may be more of a sign of the health of its democracy, rather than its flaws; Gretchen Helmke suggests that Rousseff’s impeachment in a way reflects well on the consolidation of democracy since the end of military rule in 1985.

Sport for Peace and Development

Significantly the International Olympic Committee, together with the U.N Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, announced on April 29th that the Rio games will feature the first-ever refugee team. This dramatic move – to represent the stateless and highlight the plight of the world 60 million refugees and other displaced persons. Already, a Syrian refugee was the first torch-bearer in the Olympic Relay, and Britain’s The Guardian newspaper posted a compelling story on top international athletes globally who used to be refugees. This suggests, for Rio, at least, there is hope that the Olympic Games can serve as a contribution to peace through the representation, however symbolic, of the worlds’ displaced.

After the ephemeral Olympic flame is out, what’s left is a perhaps much more important, and enduring, set of activities carried out by international and local organizations to build peace and development through sport.   For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with sponsorship from the International Olympic Committee, has used sport to help refugee children regain “lost childhood” through volleyball programs in countries such as East Timor, Nepal, South Sudan, and Yemen. In Sierra Leone, disabled ex-combatant and civilian land-mine victims with disabilities compete vigorously in the “Amputees Cup,” winning community admiration and self-respect simultaneously. In Afghanistan, skateboarding has been introduced to help in the rehabilitation of internally displaced persons and to build a youth culture that eschews militancy and insurgency and that builds ties across class and ethnic lines. In Rwanda, and now in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the project “Yoga Air” uses yoga to help address ongoing trauma experienced by HIV-positive women and girls. While in Colombia, soccer matches are actively used to encourage the progression of ex-combatants through a structured “social reintegration” strategy.

So as the world watches the Opening Ceremony’s proverbial parade of nations, a lesson worth remembering is that – while it is perfectly normal, and just fine, to feel loyalty and attachment for a team and for a nation – nationalism as such is a highly dangerous ideology. There is ever-present need to be deeply wary of its expression the in arena of international sport, and sport (ideally) should have nothing to do with politics. Instead, perhaps let’s celebrate individual achievement when we see it and not think too much of tearful of anthem-singing, flag-raising medal ceremonies. And we can look forward to the fact that, since the 1956 Melbourne Games, in the Closing Ceremonies the athletes – including in Rio the refugees – will march into the Olympic stadium together as individuals and not nations.

[1] In 1936, the Berlin Games were a spectacle of “constructed nationalism” by the Nazis, replete with narratives, symbols, uniforms, and ceremony that wove an overall ideology of fascism, ethnic exclusivity, and voodoo science on ethnic and racial hierarchy. This ideology is reflected in the work the late documentary filmmaker, Reni Riefenstahl in the propaganda film Olympia (1936). The myth was shattered, in practice, by the success of U.S. Olympian and African-American Jesse Owens whose four gold medals undermined the fascist ideology.


    Allow me to relate a story to illustrate how youths can help or contribute to building a better and peaceful world through sport. John Ian Wing was a 17-year-old Chinese-Australian student living in Melbourne. He was immensely troubled by the tensions during the 1956 Melbourne Games. A near-riot had broken out during the USSR-Hungary water polo competition, tainted by the Suez Crisis and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. Wing sent an anonymous letter to the Melbourne Organising Committee, suggesting that all athletes walk freely as one nation in the closing ceremony, contrary to the tradition of marching by Nation. To his surprise, his idea of ‘One World, One Nation’ was implemented. Today, he is still lauded for his role in promoting peace and global unity.

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