War and Peace at the Olympic Games

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.

But 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.

Note all 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.

Do 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"?

Hitchens 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?

On 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.

So 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.

But 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.

By 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.

The 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.

In 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 athletes.

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.