Over the past decade living here in Europe, I've noticed a curious phenomenon every four years. While my American friends back home get wildly excited about the Olympic Games, my friends in Europe seem to greet them with a collective yawn.
This pattern is being bourne out again this year. In the morning, while the Americans are sleeping, my Facebook timeline is bereft of Olympics information. Then, around 2pm, it starts. 'America won this. It lost that. Chinese people are bad at X. Australians are good at Y. Russians are cheaters. This Moldovan athlete is attractive so all Moldovans are attractive. What is Moldova again?'
I posted this observation on Facebook and asked people why they thought the difference exists. No one in Europe disagreed that Europeans are not so into the games, particularly compared to the Olympics-obsessed Americans. Funny enough, I think Americans assume the rest of the world is watching the games as closely as they are. I certainly did until I moved to Europe.
Some posited that it has to do with the size of the countries. Europeans watch less because they can only get a few medals, whereas for Americans its a competition to be number one. Others pointed out the time difference for the broadcast from Rio this year, although I would say I noticed the same lack of interest four years ago when the games were in London (outside the UK, of course).
I actually found the most interesting explanation to be the legacy of the Cold War. Starting in the 1950s the Olympics became a weird proxy war between the capitalist and communist worlds. It was America versus Russia, and nobody cared more than the people in these two superpowers. The obsession to win became so big that state-sponsored doping became unavoidable - such was the political importance attached to these medals (an importance that clearly continues today for the Russian government).
This proxy war had started in earnest in the 1930s, when fascist countries battled it out with liberals to see who was racially superior. But it really accelerated after World War II. Indeed, the Cold War shaped the modern Olympics. One wonders what the games would look like today if there had been no cold war. Would we even still have the Olympic Games? Or would they have gone the way of the Worlds Fairs of yore?
Why compete for your nation?
That nationalism shaped the modern Olympic games seems to me self-evident. After all, they were created in 1894, based (very loosely) on the games held in ancient Greece. That they were created at the tail end of the century of nationalism, in which most of the modern nation-states of Europe were created, shows their aim.
|The Greek war of independence, 1821|
In the ensuing 120 years the games have continued to serve the purpose of reinforcing recently-created national identities, as new nation-states were created across Africa and Asia.
And so, when the Italian fencer Elisa Di Francisca took to the podium to accept her silver medal yesterday brandishing the flag of the European Union rather than an Italian flag, it was a direct challenge to the entire Olympic system.
While Russia's Inna Deriglazova beamed triumphantly under the Russian flag, a decidedly patriotic look on her face, Di Francisca chose to smile next to an international symbol instead. She dedicated her win to the victims of terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris.
"Europe exists and is united against terrorism," she said. "We must remain united and not allow terror to get the better of us. Let's not allow those who want us to shut ourselves in our homes to get the better of us."
A fairly innocuous statement, right? Not for Italy's right-wing, which has branded Di Francisca's flag-waving as borderline treason. Brexiteers seem similarly aghast.
Of course, even though Di Francisca was holding the EU flag, she was standing under the Italian flag, as that is what the Olympic rules require. As far as I'm aware she didn't make any request to replace the Italian flag above her with a European one. But she was making a statement that her identity is not only Italian, she is also a European.
The sight of athletes standing under their country's flag, cajoled into singing their country's national anthem as everyone watches to check that they know the words, has always unnerved me. It send the message that these countries own the athletes, and that the medal has been won by the nation rather than the individual.
There have been instances in history where the athletes themselves did not feel comfortable standing under the flag required by the Olympic committee. The most notorious example in the United States was in 1968 when two athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gave the 'black power' salute on the podium. As The Star-Spangled Banner played they kept their fists raised, and did not sing along.
That salute was something that filled much of white America with fear and was seen as treasonous. The International Olympic Committee then expelled the two athletes from the games, saying they had made a "domestic political statement".
But was it really the domestic nature that alarmed the IOC so much? In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Smith said that the gesture was not a 'black power' salute, but a "human rights salute". It was, in particular, meant as solidarity with Vietnam. In other words, it was a gesture of non-nationalism.
Small wonder that this was considered so antithetical to the Olympic spirit. And it explains why, in some quarters in Italy, Di Francisca's brandishing of the EU flag is seen as equivalent to the black power salute. The Olympics are meant to promote peaceful nationalism - separating people out into nations and fostering sportsmanship between them. Remove that national identity, and you have no games.
What would a non-nationalist Olympics look like?
The Olympics does have a section for 'independent athletes', but this is not a designation that an athlete can voluntarily join. It is meant as a designation for someone who is temporarily stateless or living in a country not recognised by the IOC. The new 'refugee' team introduced this year has a similarly temporary nature.
If you're an athlete and you want to compete in the Olympics, you have to choose which nation-state 'owns' you.
For people from countries that have fallen apart, this can be a difficult choice. During the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, people had to choose which of the new flags to compete under even though the multi-ethnic background of many of the athletes made such a decision unclear. A half-Croat half-Serb who competed for Yugoslavia in Sarajevo in 1984 would have had to decide whether to compete for Croatia or Serbia a decade later.
Being a Catalan or Basque athlete competing for Spain can be uncomfortable if you're a separatist. And what flag is someone from Crimea supposed to compete under?
Having a spot on that Olympic podium gives these new countries legitimacy. East Germany pursued a brutal programme of doping up their athletes in the 1960s and '70s in an effort to gain international recognition and legitimacy as a state. The Berlin Wall may have been a national embarrassment, but having an East German citizen stand on that podium gave certainty. Yes, the German Democratic Republic exists.
So what's the alternative? The Olympics are very popular, and people like the model of countries competing against one another. And really, if everyone was competing as individuals it wouldn't be as exciting, right?
Well, what if we separated people out into teams based on geographic areas rather than the invented nation states of the 19th and 20th centuries? You could have a teams from Europe, North America, Latin America, MiddleEast/North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania.
This would provide the designations with more historical longevity, rather than basing the games on the nation-states that happen to exist at the moment.
This might increase the interest from small countries, who would suddenly have the prospect of their 'team' winning a lot more medals. Take Europe for instance. Just looking at day 3 of the Olympics, observe how a European Union team would stack up against China, Russia and America. Suddenly, Europeans are in it to win it.
I think Di Francisca's flag-waving is a beautiful gesture. And the vitriolic reaction to it is evidence of why the Olympics Games make me very uncomfortable. Let's have more Di Francescas, please.
I'm not naive, I know such a non-nationalist organisation for the Olympics is a pipe dream. But it's nice to think of alternatives. In the mean time, I'm not so interested in watching the games. There's just so much to not like about this whole spectacle.
My feelings about the games were summed up in this hilarious video from JP Sears, which starts out with this spot-on line:
"The Olympic games are a competition that unites the world by creating clear lines of division between the superior nations and the inferior ones."