by Barry Edelson

Chariots of Perspire

Make a Choice: Your Sport or Your Country


In a perfect world (not this one, obviously) there would be no daily medal count at the Olympic games, no flags, no national anthems. Humankind's greatest sports spectacle would actually be about athletic achievement, not the relative greatness of nation-states.

In our inherently flawed world, however, we are witness to such bizarre predicaments as that of a Japanese figure skater, Yuko Kavaguti (originally Kawaguchi), who had to renounce her citizenship, and consequently face the censure of her home country, in order to compete with her Russian partner, Alexander Smirnov. In what way, exactly, does this exemplify the "Olympic spirit" of human fellowship that the games pretend to represent? Can someone explain why it is that an individual athlete isn't allowed to compete as herself and not under the flag of any particular nation?

The technical answer is obvious. The Olympics are governed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), whose legitimacy is conferred by the many national olympic committees under whose dominion athletes are dispatched to the games. The world happens to be organized in such a way in the present era that virtually no one on the planet lives anywhere that isn't part of some nation or other. It is therefore impossible for almost anyone to exist without having the cope with being a citizen of somewhere. And since every living human was born and raised in a world of borders and identity papers, it is very difficult to "imagine there's no country", as the song vainly exhorted us to try.

Nationalism has not been merely an unwanted side effect of the modern olympic movement, but its primary organizing principle. The face of the poor Japanese figure skater, Mao Asada, who had to settle for a silver medal in women's figure skating, was in many sad respects truer to the reality and history of the Olympics than the sentimental pablum we are fed by the organizers and their handmaidens in the broadcast media. Fans of the Olympics may well remember Asado's idol, Midori Ito, who actually apologized for finishing second in the 1992 winter games. (The public apology, as exemplified last week by the president of Toyota's subjection before the American Congress, is evidently a prominent part of the Japanese national culture.) Carrying the weight of one's entire nation on one's shoulders is precisely what the Olympics were created for. In the brutal society of ancient Greece, whose city-states fought wars of annihilation that came second to none in their barbarity, athletes who lost did not merely face the challenge of overcoming a personal failure. The games were wielded as a political weapon against one's enemies, just as they have been in modern times by Nazi Germany in 1936, the Soviet Union in 1980 and China two years ago. The barely concealed ferocity of the opening ceremony at the Beijing games was a not very subtle reminder that countries do not host or encourage their athletes to compete in the Olympics for the fun of sports, but to intimidate their rivals. Even the Olympians of user-friendly Canada were encouraged to "own the podium" at the Vancouver games.

Freedom-shouting Americans, who can hardly imagine what it must be like to live in a society that treats its own people so cruelly, may be startled to learn that a number of the most popular stars of this year's U.S. contingent have very little relationship to their national team. Speed skater Shani Davis, skier Lindsey Vonn and snowboarder Shaun White are among those singled out in today's New York Times for training on their own and — gasp! — with the help of corporate sponsors. But who can blame them for deciding that camaraderie is nice, but winning is better? The American government, unlike China, may not snatch children from their parents and raise them as sports automatons for the sole purpose of achieving national glory in the form of Olympic gold, but the pressure to win is instilled in our youth from a very early age. The single-minded obsession of athletes is a topic that has been explored in more depth in another essay ("Don't Let Your Kids Grow Up to Be Sports Stars", January 2008) and doesn't bear repeating here. It should suffice to say that the next time you see an American athlete drape the flag around himself just seconds after winning a race, or watch the medal count tallied daily on the television broadcast, ask yourself whether winning for the country doesn't matter to our athletes almost as much as winning for themselves.

We can call the tension between personal and national aspirations the "Chariots of Fire" problem. As far back as the 1920s, Harold Abrahams was criticized in some quarters for hiring a private coach in his (successful) quest for an Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters. Never mind that the Olympic games in that era could hardly have been more elitist: most of the athletes were toffs from Western Europe, North America and the outposts of colonial empires, and couldn't have competed at all if they hadn't been wealthy enough to support their own training. (The movie exaggerates the point somewhat, as Abrahams went on to be a highly respected figure in the world of British sports.) Nonetheless, that anyone thought it troubling for an athlete to value his own ambition over that of his nation was a tell-tale sign that the modern Olympic movement, like its ancient predecessor, was doomed to be a captive of politics and commerce.

What do we make, then, of figure skater Tugba Karademir, whose parents gave up their professions and a comfortable life in Turkey to take their daughter to Canada, where they did menial labor so she could train in her favored sport? If Turkey doesn't have any facility where a skater can practice, no coach to train her, and presumably little if any fan base to support her (not to mention a large Muslim fundamentalist population that no doubt considers it sacrilege for a woman to parade her body before the public in skin-tight clothing), then in what sense is she actually representing her country? She is hardly the first athlete to move abroad to train and still compete under the flag of her home country. The women's champion, Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, trained with the former Canadian champion Brian Orser; both the gold and silver medalists in ice dancing, from Canada and the U.S. respectively, were coached by the same pair of Russians. Surely, there ought to be room in the supposed meritocracy of international athletics for the young man or woman whose country is utterly irrelevant to their desire to compete.

Confession: I have always liked the Winter Olympics, and much prefer it to the vast hodgepodge of events and sprawling array of venues that comprise the contemporary summer games. By comparison, the winter games are an intimate festival, with every sport contested on snow and ice, all variations on the art of the controlled skid. Notwithstanding the predictable TV packaging and sappy commentary, there is much artistry and elegance to be savored and admired. To complete this happy picture, here is a modest proposal for the organizers of the next winter games: at the opening ceremony, do not have the athletes march into the arena under their national flags. Instead, group them according to their sports. Have all the figure skaters enter together, all of the downhill skiers, all of the bobsled teams, and so on. By all means, allow the flags to fly somewhere in the vicinity; we needn't pretend that the nations of the world do not exist. But neither is it necessary to corrupt the symbolism of the Olympics by allowing politics and nationhood to trump sport and brotherhood as the organizing principle of the games.

February 28, 2010


Postscript: A few days after the end of the Vancouver games, the Russian president called upon that nation's Olympic officials to resign because of the meager haul of medals by Russia's athletes. With Russia slated to host the next winter games in 2014, and its leaders evidently determined to prove that it is not merely the derelict spawn of the Soviet Union, there would appear to be little chance that nationalistic tendencies in international sport will subside any time soon.


Related essays:

"Don't Let Your Kids Grow Up to Be Sports Stars", January 2008.

"Torch Song Threnody", April 2008, about the Beijing summer games.

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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.