Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Olympics and Nationalism

The Winter Olympics opens today. Pageantry, glory, promise, 800 plus hours of NBC TV on 5 channels, no snow and 30 athletes  disqualified so far for positive drug tests. I love the Olympic ideal and truly believe that athletics like art and science transcend cultural and national boundaries. The founders of the  modern Olympic movement dreamed that the Olympic peace (all the Greek city states agreed to stop their wars for the period of the competition) of the original Olympics would promote harmony and respect across nations rather than the realpolitik of endless competition and war.

Even as I enjoy the artistry and achievement of the Olympians, I remember that the athletes compete for themselves but are here for their country. In this world of vagabonds and mercenary athletes this is a time when athletes return to the womb and compete for their country. Lest we forget, they march in together and wear the same uniforms (can you imagine Ralph Lauren designing military uniforms?).

The original Olympics held a tenuous peace but that did not prevent a form of war by proxy in the Olympic games. Nor did it stop regular attempts to steal athletes from one city state to compete for another, just as modern Olympic citizenship can become rather porous.

This aspect of Olympic competition seems to grow from a collective egoism. As a citizen I identify with them not because of excellence but because they win; they conquer; they prove superior to everyone else (if you root for the Yankees you know what I'm talking about). The Olympic peace transforms, as it did in the original games, into a war by proxy; I prove my superiority over you as a person or country when my team beats your team. Hitler raised this to its most exalted insanity with his Berlin Olympics designed to showcase the superiority of the master race. Unfortunately Jesse Owens and the University of Washington crew team, among others, showed up and punctured the Swastika clad  propaganda staged Olympics. During the cold war years TV commentators breathlessly kept medal counts, kind of like the ballistic missile counts, to see whether the US or USSR would "win." (Now if you think about figure skating as an agent for the cold war, it does seem a little silly).

The Olympics also permits a form of assymmetric war to occur. Small countries or poor countries can invest alot in athletics or pick a few sports to excel in.  The most successful and tragic episode occurred with East Germany, a small state, the Prussian remnant of Germany occupied by the Russians at the end of World War II. The country made a concerted and secret effort to reinforce its identity and legitimacy through sports superiority. Young boys and girls were recruited at a very early age; sequestered in sports clubs and academies where they trained relentlessly. They lived in splendid and privileged isolation from the poor society at large. The kids were also fed a finely calibrated diet of "vitamins" to ensure their health. The steroids and hormones they ingested generated immense strength, more rigorous training because they bounced back faster and created prodigious human beings. For over 15 years East German men, but especially women, who looked like mutant Valkeries, dominated swimming, track and field and weight lifting. The whole state sponsored system was designed to prove the superiority of communism over capitalism. It provided a great counterpoint to the relative failure of West German athletes and offset the incredible West German economic and political success.

The Olympic and World medals piled up. Other countries noticed the inhuman physique of the athletes. The whole house of cards came down as drug testing got better and the East European communist system collapsed. The lingering results today are a group of men and women who against their knowledge were permanently injured, as were many of their children, by the experiments upon them in the name of garnering Olympic glory and stature for their country.

I will enjoy the athletes, ignore ice dancing but wallow in curling and laugh at the antics and spectacular innovations of snow boarding. But I will remember these are humans first, athletes second, citizens third. I will not let some atavistic glory in their relation to my country or other countries take away from the true glory of their achievments.

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