Sunday, August 17, 2008

On the Olympics: Patriotism or Triumphalism?

IN A RECENT INTERVIEW, Chris Collinsworth asked Kobe Bryant where his patriotism came from. Bryant, who is, for the first time, playing on the USA Olympic basketball team, responded that his patriotism comes from the fact that "America is the greatest country in the world."

This is a phrase we hear a lot, all too often perhaps. In fact, it has become part of America's standard rhetorical artillery. No one is really sure what it means, but a lot of people say it. Are we the greatest at providing health care? At educating children? At rehabilitating criminals?

To be sure, the Olympics is about greatness. They are always more fun to watch and to follow than it seems like they are going to be, but cheering for athletes can be a tricky business. I always wonder, when I'm hoping that Michael Phelps slips past the Serbian guy for his 7th gold medal, if I'm rooting for Phelps (who, as a youth, was arrested for DWI) or for the United States. Is my desire a personal affiliation (I like Phelps), or is it patriotic (I like my country)? Can mere patriotism, when on the crucible of the Olympics, become jingoism?

On the other hand, when I happened to catch the U.S./Cuba baseball game that went into extra innings, I found myself cheering for Cuba. Then, I puzzled if I was rooting against the U.S. In the whole Cuba vs. United States paradigm, it's hard to side with the Americans--on the diamond or off.

What is interesting about the Olympics is the nationalism (and the patriotic emotions) the inter-national competitions evoke. Is rooting for the U.S. sculling team an act of patriotism (loyalty) or an act of triumphalism (domination)? For a long time, America has preached democracy and equality but enacted dominancy and supremacy. At their worst, the Olympics downplay the former and completely catalyze the latter.

One wonders, for example, if in the photo above, Michael Phelps is indicating that he is number one or if the United States is number one. If he's celebrating America's dominance, is that dominance brought about because he swam in a pool faster than seven other men? Does athletic victory have anything to say about military victory?

I find myself surprisingly pleased, this morning, when I note in the Times that the U.S. leads in the overall medal count. What I've decided this means is that I'm happy that young men and women who I share many cultural, national, and contemporary American experiences with, are doing well and achieving their goals, in part because of the assumption that because they are American, I have a better idea of what winning in America means to Americans. For most of us, experiences are national--we see them through a national lens. It colors, shades, and focuses how and what we do and feel.

Cheering for Americans and American teams during the Olympics is fine; in fact it's great. You'd feel like a dope not getting caught up in the frenzy of the drama. But, it' s important to remember that the Olympics are ultimately about athletics not indicators of governmental bad-assness.


  1. My wife and I were watching the Olympics the other day. "Which ones are the Americans, the ones in red?" She asked. "Yeah, I think so," I replied. "You can always tell the Americans," she said. "The always look meaner and angrier than the others."

    June Shih has a bit in Slate about China Central Television (CCTV) coverage. She makes this observation: "NBC is patriotic because patriotism sells; CCTV is patriotic because patriotism is the law."

  2. Thanks for the link. Smart observations . . .

  3. You hit on the ambivalence I think many of us feel. Can I get behind the "redeem team?" No, mainly because they are overpaid pro athletes with monster corporate contracts. I don't like the arrogance of the U.S. in basketball. What could any of us have in common with Kobe Bryant? But, I found myself rooting for U.S. men's gymnasts who won a silver despite missing their stars. I want U.S. athletes to compete well but to do it with humility and grace.

  4. I thought you and Kobe share the same accountant (and lawyer). Am I mistaken?