Nationalism and Cash Won the Rio Olympics

Lithuanian swimmer Deividas Margevičius at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Wikimedia Commons/Agência Brasil Fotografias

It didn’t help global brotherhood, but it sold a lot of Coca-Cola.

The Rio Olympics took place in a world that has seen an upsurge of nationalism. Do the games serve to reflect, amplify or diffuse this nationalist wave?

The Olympic charter talks of “building a peaceful and better world . . . with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” But in practice, the games have long since been overtaken by displays of jingoistic nationalism and rampant commercialization.

The Olympic Games are a unique opportunity for athletes from different countries to get to know each other, united in their love of sport. This has been exemplified in Brazil by the warm welcome given to the ten athletes of the Refugee Olympic Team.

One the other hand, from its earliest years the Olympics have involved national teams performing under their respective flags, with anthems sung. The infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics saw the games turned into a giant mass spectacle, staged for the cameras and an audience of millions. The Nazi salutes may have dropped out of fashion, but treating the Olympics an opportunity to boost the prestige of the host nation and its leaders has persisted through to the present day.

The games provide a unique platform for the performance of national identity before a mass audience. With modern mobile TV cameras, viewers can see, up close and personal, the exertions, the sweat, the stress and the emotion of athletes competing for their country. The viewers vicariously share in their struggle: the athletes literally embody the nation. While expressions of nationalism in everyday life, such as flying the flag or wearing a T-shirt, often appear ritualistic and superficial, the Olympic athletes have devoted years of painstaking effort in preparing for the games.

China skillfully used the 2008 Olympics to announce its arrival on the world stage, with its impressive opening ceremony and huge medal tally. Much to everyone’s surprise, the United Kingdom replicated China’s success in 2012, with a breathtaking opening spectacle and an unprecedented third-place finish in the medals table. The triumph of Team GB reversed Britain’s sense of anomie, and is a factor helping to explain the June 2016 vote to leave the EU. Apart from the boost to national confidence, the Olympics showcased London mayor Boris Johnson, who was to become the face of the Brexit campaign.

Britain has also done well in Rio, ending the games at third place in the medals table. The “secret” to Britain’s success is simple: money. A national lottery was introduced in 1997, with proceeds going to sport. Rather than spend money on, say, inner-city basketball, UK Sport targeted athletes with a chance of victory in the Olympics. Britain went from thirty-sixth place in 1996 to third in 2012. Its medal total rose from fifteen in 1996 to forty-seven in 2008 and sixty-five in 2012, while funding went from £85 million to £265 million, then to £350 million. In 2012, that worked out to £4.5 million of funding for each medal won by Team GB. (The British seem to do particularly well at events that involve sitting down, such as cycling, kayaking and equestrian events.)

Naturally enough, in each country broadcasters tend to focus on athletes from their home country, and on the sports where their athletes are doing well. Research on the coverage of the 2008 Olympics found that NBC devoted 84 percent of its comments to American Olympians, while China’s CCTV allotted 52 percent of all comments to Chinese athletes.

The Olympics also boost national pride in countries lower down the medals table. Kosovo, competing in the Olympics for the first time since its declaration of independence in 2008, struck gold in women’s judo, a cause of great celebration in Pristina. Even the clothes the athletes wear can become a source of pride—or controversy, in the case of Georgia, for example, which opted for a neo-medieval look in Rio, with floor-length robes for the women.

The Olympics are more inclusive than the United Nations, allowing Puerto Rico, Hong Kong and Taiwan to compete in Rio under their respective flags. There were some heartwarming cases of Olympians reaching across national divides, such as the North and South Korean gymnasts who embraced for a selfie. However there were also counterexamples, such as the Egyptian judoka expelled for refusing to shake hands with the Israeli who defeated him, or the Lebanese team that refused to allow Israelis onto their bus on the way to the opening ceremony.