William James wrote a great essay in 1906 entitled the “Moral Equivalent of War.” (That I never read it or even heard it discussed in my graduate training is but the latest example on this blog of how myopic, unhistorical, and excessively ‘scientistic’ IR has become.) I’ve always thought it provided a good key to explain the nationalism suffusing world sports, especially the sheer jingoism of the Olympics.
The Olympics provides a way for nation-states to engage in all the nationalist passion and competition the human dark side craves, yet in a way that does not involve mass-killing and property destruction. It is therefore James’ moral analogue or equivalent to international conflict or war. The Olympics allow us to reenact global conflict in zero-sum environments, but safely. Indeed, this is probably the great social benefit of the Olympics: they are a safety valve for nationalist furor to be channeled into neutral non-malign outcomes, but for the occasional soccer riot. Far from a being a global event that celebrates our common humanity, the Olympics is a good example of the state’s and its citizens’ resistance to globalization. The deeply-rooted nationalist passion of most people is easily on display; how often do you see supposedly mild Canadians drunkenly screaming and waving their flag? So forget that ‘we-are-the-world’ blather from the opening ceremonies. Let’s get to some serious national a— kicking.
War in the modern world has become ridiculously destructive and expensive. Nuclear weapons especially have made war nearly unthinkable among the biggest nuclear weapons states. This is excellent of course; nukes seem to be having a wholly unanticipated pacifying effect. But human bloodlust needs to be sated somehow. A moral equivalent of the ‘value’ of war is needed: defeat of an enemy, tales of courage and heroism, the exhilaration of triumph in a zero-sum competition for high stakes, the desire for mass rallying around distinct in-group symbols, an unashamed outlet for bigotry and prejudice, the lionization of physical beauty and strength, the unambiguous assertion and celebration of in-group superiority. There is a reason why the best movie ever made about sport was a by a fascist enamored of male virility filming an Olympics.
The Olympics is a great source for all those dark sides of world politics, and you don’t really need to look hard to see this. Consider the picture above. I saw some Korean iceskater the other day take a victory lap with a taeguki wrapped around his shoulders, and Koreans in the room with me were clapping and cheering. But the best know example is the US hockey team’s defeat of the Soviet team in 1980. Americans went bonkers, because everyone read it as some (bogus) triumph in the Cold War. Just in case your overweening sense of American awesomeness ever flags, you can watch this (unbelievably schmaltzy tripe) to remind yourself why America is the most amazing place ever.
Or consider the introduction of the teams on day 1. Did anyone else notice that when the Iranian team was introduced that the applause level dropped suddenly? Wasn’t it obvious how the introduction of those players of ‘global’ sport came under the moniker of national titles? What better way to reifiy and reinforce the state in an era of challenge by globalization. Even our athletes are national tools; they’re our athletes.
So please, spare me the multicultural fluff about the Native Americans in Canada, how the Olympics is ‘for love of the game’, your ‘appreciation’ for the success of other countries’ athletes, how you really do pay attention to curling beyond the two-week period it became your favorite sport. At least be honest that you want to see the Jamaican bobsledders crash and that you chest tingles when your flag goes up.