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.
The Olympics are also ethnically and socially inclusive, as evidenced by the success of African American athletes such as Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and Simone Manuel. Gone are the days when sport at this level was the privilege of a narrow elite from private schools. Thanks to sponsorships and state programs, athletes now come from all walks of life.
Brazil, beset by political and economic crises, is unlikely to experience much of a national identity boost from hosting the Olympics. It can, however, take pride in the fact that the facilities were ready on time and the games have gone off without incident (notwithstanding the occasional criminal incident or green pool) and seem to have been enjoyed by all involved. Brazil topped the seventeen medals it won in London. The country had its highest hopes for volleyball and soccer, and won gold in both men’s tournaments. Meanwhile, China had to adjust to winning fewer golds than anticipated: battling Britain for second place, it won fewer gold medals than the Brits but three more medals overall. However, after the triumph in Beijing, China’s national narrative has moved on to other projects beyond the sporting realm.
Arguably the most prominent impact of Rio on nationalism has been the scandal over state-sponsored doping, which led to the banning of the Russian athletics team (and all Russian teams from the Paralympics). Vladimir Putin had invested some $50 billion in making the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics a success, so Russia’s exclusion from Rio strikes at the core of Putin’s platform. However, the Kremlin had no problem convincing the Russian public that the ban is just another example of the U.S.-led conspiracy to diminish Russia.
The games are not just about nationalism: they are also big business. The Rio games were put together on a tight budget—but still cost $12 billion. Costs are recouped from the sale of broadcasting rights and sponsorships (though Brazil faces a likely deficit of $4 billion).
Nationalism and commercialism overlap, with corporations using nationalist appeals to sell their products.
Olympic advertising by sponsors ahead of the games, usually uplifting and global in nature, was quite nationalistic this time around. National brands selling in their home market tend to focus on showcasing native athletes to the exclusion of those from other countries. Global brands tend to favor universal appeal, invoking the dreams and struggles of individual athletes. For example, Procter and Gamble’s Rio Olympics ad is a sentimental appeal on the universal theme of parents looking out for their children (“Thank you, Mom”), the same theme the company had used in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Coca-Cola developed a generic feel-good Rio ad for use in markets around the world—but ran customized ads for China that focused exclusively on Chinese athletes. Likewise, Samsung produced an impressive “one world” anthem for global markets, but ran a China-specific ad in that market. The Chinese market is so important, and their national pride so sensitive, that it is worth according them special treatment.
Whatever the costs and benefits of the Olympics, civic and national ambition means that some cities are willing to take on the challenge. Four cities are currently in the running to host the 2024 Olympics: Budapest, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome. The show will go on.
Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University and editor in chief of Nationalities Papers. This year he is Leverhulme visiting professor at the University of Manchester.
Image: Lithuanian swimmer Deividas Margevičius at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Wikimedia Commons/Agência Brasil Fotografias