Jingoism in the Olympics is a necessary evil

Credit: Anisha Jain/ Credit: Anisha Jain/

Why do we watch the Olympic Games?

Every four years, the Olympics, summer and winter, come and go. We hear the loud drum of NBC's Olympics musical theme. We watch sports that we’ve never heard of and we fall in love with athletes we don’t hear about for another four years. We get wrapped up in a national fervor, as if all the millions of people watching feel the same happiness or disappointment. There’s something magical about the Olympics: the human stories, the dreams coming true (or crashing to a halt), and the national pride.

But if dig a little deeper, these feelings of hope and joy and pride can start to feel a little contrived. These athletes around the world have dedicated their lives to their sport — nothing can or should be taken away from that. But after watching heavily-produced, tear-inducing athlete pieces (by NBC in the United States), these tactics can feel manipulative. After watching NBC cut events from the main broadcast because there are not any Americans competing, after hearing commentators rave on and on about American athletes without much notice to the other athletes, after we ourselves feed into this nationalism through social media, patriotism can bleed to jingoism, the type of nationalism that becomes chauvinistic, fanatical, and belligerent.

The ancient Olympics, which began no later than 776 B.C., was a sporting event held in Olympia, Greece, to celebrate the Greek Olympian gods. In 1896, the modern Olympics was revived by French noble Pierre de Coubertin to promote a physical education program. It is also a symbol of unity among the countries of the world. Despite this second purpose, the Olympics throughout history have been ripe for political controversy, with political antagonism between different countries bleeding into the Games, and these events being used as propaganda to show off the might of individual countries.

The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin was a perfect tool for this type of propaganda, feeding into the nationalist agenda of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles, respectively, mirrored the Cold War animosity between the United States and the Soviet Union. Even one of the greatest moments in Olympic history (for Americans), the "Miracle on Ice", cannot be divorced from the context of the Cold War.

The jingoism of the Olympics is a necessary evil. They give countries an outlet to flex their muscles, to present the best of their best, to one-up of other countries without bloodshed. Before (and after) 1896, countries mainly exerted power over each other through war, conquest, and colonialism. This continued in the 20th century after the revival of the Olympics, but as independence movements spread around the world in the latter half of the century, the Olympics became an even more important way for countries to showcase their superiority. Athletic competition, no matter how patriotically it is broadcast, is a far better alternative than violent imperialism, though imperialism does still exist today (albeit in a slightly evolved version).

This potentially harmful nationalist perspective is not developed solely through NBC's coverage of the Olympics. We are part of the problem. We scream the "U! S! A!" chant. We provide fodder for other countries to resent our obnoxious bravado, our air of superiority. In the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, American swimmer Lily King took issue with Russian competitor Yulia Yefimova's history with performance enhancing drugs. King defeated Yefimova for the gold and told reporters that she believed athletes with histories of doping should be barred form competition. Twitter immediately exploded with celebratory memes and jokes at Yefimova's expense. Generations of negative feelings about Russians came out, as they are wont to do whenever they are given the chance. The use of performance enhancing drugs and how governing bodies address it is a serious one, but keyboard-happy people turned it into a funnel of one-sided patriotism.

Sometimes, however, the Olympics have fulfilled their original purpose, uniting countries and their citizens as the world watches. During the Olympics, we often see athletes from different countries congratulating each other, celebrating a healthy competitive spirit. We have witnessed powerful moments of hope and strength that transcended national boundaries: Britain's Derek Redmond's race finish, Kerri Strug's one-foot landing, the Black Power Salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the athletes of North and South Korea marched together. This also happened in the opening ceremony of the current Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, although the motivations for this attempt at unity have been met with some skepticism.

In its essence, the Olympics ultimately serve as a form of entertainment, a way to bring a family together around a television. It’s fun to learn about unfamiliar sports and unfamiliar countries, to watch people do things we could never do before our very eyes, and it’s truly inspiring to see athletes fight through adversity in pursuit of their dreams. We experience the Olympic spirit that we hope to carry on in our own lives. But as we watch enthusiastically from our couches, as we yell and scream and cry and cheer, let’s remember to watch with our minds as well as our hearts, and take it all in with a grain of salt.