The closing ceremonies of the XXI Olympiad Winter Games on Sunday evening were a dazzling display of international harmony, better than Walt Disney's best Fantasyland version of a small, small and idyllic world. Athletes walked in together, giddy with post-competition relief, and the Russian anthem, in honor of the 2014 Sochi games, blended seamlessly with strains of the Canadian "Maple Leaf Forever" by crooner Michael Buble.
The spectacle prompted one Sports Illustrated writer
to call the ceremonies a moment "unprecedented in sport," in which
athletes "mix, stand and dance until all national colors and flags
become irrelevant." And in that one moment, or looking only at surface
appearances, he might very well have been right.
for all the hoopla made about international friendship and cooperation
in the Olympics--or any other international sporting event--the
currents of international competition and conflict roil powerfully and
consistently just below the surface.
the commentators who talked about how different the closing ceremonies
would have been had Canada not beaten its lower-continental rival, the
U.S., in the gold-medal round of the ice hockey competition just hours
before the end of the games. Or the controversy over Canada's exclusion
of other countries' competitors in training sessions on the Olympic
runs before the games, in an effort to rack up a better medal count
with a home court advantage. Or the edict issued by Russian President
Dimitry Medvedev on Monday calling for the resignation of the nation's
top Olympic officials after Russia accumulated a "shameful" total of
only 15 medals at the games. Or Russian figure skater Evgeny
Plushenko's disdainful comments about the man who bested him for the
gold medal, calling the competition "ice dancing" because the champion
had not performed a "quad" jump, and temporarily awarding himself a
higher "platinum" medal on his personal website.
the Olympics, and other international sporting events like the World
Cup, really promote international harmony and friendship? Or do they,
as Christopher Hitchens argued in a recent Newsweek column
, "breed conlfict and bring out the worst in human nature"?
makes some good points. Aside from the cheating, doping, judging,
limiting access and other Machiavellian maneuvers on the part of both
athletes and organizers, national team sports breed a particular strain
of nationalistic fervor that walks a fine line between pride and
confrontation. Hitchens points to recent flare-ups in violence and
relations between Egypt and Algeria over a soccer match in Khartoum,
Sudan, and the famous 1969 El Salvador-Honduras 100-hour "Soccer War,"
in which tensions between the two countries burst into open military
conflict amidst tensions and violence over the qualifying games for the
1970 World Cup competition.
Much of the
trouble, of course, comes not from the athletes themselves, but from
the fans (short for "fanatics") who root for the athletes and teams in
question. We imbue our national athletes with such attendant symbolism
that a loss in sport translates to a loss in national pride (as
Medvedev made abundantly clear). Live by the national team victory, die
by the national team defeat. And some don't take that kind of loss any
better than other national affronts that have, historically, led to
conflict or open war.
So do sporting events
like the Olympics really break down national barriers? Or do they
instead provide yet another flash point for national conflict?
some level, it probably depends on how you define things like "peace"
and "friendship." If, for example, you view the Olympics as an
international peace festival, it falls bitterly short of Woodstock's
standard for peace, love or harmony. But it's worth remembering that
the original Olympic games were a way for Greek city-states to show off
and gain status from the combat-skill prowess of their warrior-athlete
heroes. The original sports of javelin, boxing, running, pentathlon,
chariot races and wrestling were all applicable to combat. A formal
truce was called during the games to allow the contestants to travel to
and from the competition without fear of harm ... although the truce
was apparently observed to varying degrees.
if you view the Olympics (or even the fan-crazed World Cup
competitions) as a less-lethal surrogate for armed military conflict,
then they represent huge leaps forward in international peace and
friendship. From that perspective, international sporting competitions
don't spark conflict; they just occasionally get overwhelmed by the base conflicts that gave rise to their existence in the first place.
for all the sniping, anger, chauvinism and overzealous crowd response
that comes with the territory, the Olympic and World Cup competitions
do offer more opportunities for bridging national boundaries than they
used to, even if it wasn't a planned evolution. The fall of the Iron
Curtain, and the increasingly global nature of sports and life, means
that many athletes now train and play with competitors in countries
away from their "homes." A World Cup soccer star may play for Real
Madrid in club play but compete on the Brazilian national team in World
Cup competition. Same for many NHL hockey players who played for Canada
or Russia in the Olympics, despite playing together on U.S. teams the
rest of the year. That mixing of nationalities in the training and
professional sports realm means that friendships tend to bloom more
easily across national boundaries, even if it's not the Olympic or
World Cup games, per se, that lead to those friendships.
the same token, the advent of televised coverage of the Olympics does
tend to humanize individual athletes in a way that makes it harder to
maintain blanket stereotypes of races or nationalities. Watching Kim
Yu-Na wipe away persistent tears after landing a gold-medal performance
in women's figure skating, it was hard not to see her as the
overwhelmed 19-year-old student she is, in need of a good, strong
parental hug. The real-time cheers, tears and frustrations on the faces
of all the athletes are universal emotions we recognize, even if the
language and facial features are unfamiliar. In those moments, despite
all our nationalistic pride, it's harder to view the athletes as the
"other," or impersonal symbols of a hostile adversary.
athletes are, of course, still symbols. That's why they get such sweet
sponsorship and endorsement deals. It's also why the Israeli athletes
were kidnapped and murdered at the 1972 Olympics, and why Angolan
rebels recently shot up the Togo soccer team's bus as it traveled from
a training ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, killing two
athletes and wounding others. But the competitions didn't cause those
incidents. They just provided a handy target.
the end, international sports competitions are just that: competitions.
They're not about peace or friendship. They're symbolic show-downs that
are all about winning. They are, however, a far more civilized
alternative to out-and-out war. And they are increasingly populated by
athletes with friendships that transcend national boundaries. Even if,
as irony would have it, many of those friendships developed not because
of any choreographed ceremonies or events, but because of an
increasingly global marketplace for both amateur and professional
So does capitalism now trump
nationalism? Not quite yet. Especially, as evidenced by the roar that
stretched from Vancouver to Newfoundland, when the Canadian hockey team
wins a gold medal in overtime.