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Do we show nationalist tendencies during the Olympics?


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The Olympics is an opportunity for nations to unite in their pride at the exceptional talent and ability of their athletes. Stadiums are filled with hundreds of flags from countries all over the world, with passionate spectators cheering on their nation’s athletes. In many ways, sport is a symbol of diplomacy, even between countries which are conflicted with one another. 

Most recently, this was seen at the 2016 Rio Olympics when Lee Eun-ju of South Korea and Hong Un-jong of North Korea took a selfie together during their training period prior to the start of the Games. Many people widely praised this as a symbol of unity, as their home countries are technically still at war with each other.  Some even questioned if Hong Un-jong would face punishment for ‘fraternising with the enemy’, but North Korea has encouraged sports diplomacy as part of national policy from the 1980s.

 Others were quick to highlight the contrast between this incident and the one which saw the Lebanese Olympic Team refuse to ride the same bus as the Israeli athletes, as the two nations continue to be at war. A member of Israel’s Olympic sailing team said in a post on Facebook that organisers intervened to “prevent an international and physical incident”.

 Although this is largely uncommon, it is not just athletes who take a nationalist stance in the Games.


Why do we root for our athletes? Why do we stay up until 2am just to watch someone we don’t know try and win gold? Why do we feel disappointed when a British athlete misses out on a medal? For all we know, these athletes we’re so desperately hoping to win could be awful people. But when it’s one of our own on the world stage, then we don’t care just because they’re from the same country as us. If asked, most people would claim to not be ‘nationalist’ for fear of the racist connotations associated with it. So are we nationalist by nature? Or just patriotic? 


We of course aren't inherently inclined to support our own, as some athletes receive worldwide support in their sportsmanship, charisma and talent. Sprinter Usain Bolt is Jamaican yet people from all over the world fervently cheer him on. Gymnast Simon Biles is American but she has taken the world by storm, capturing the hearts of many nations who are simply mesmerised by her incomparable talent. Swimmer Michael Phelps, also from the US, has blown away spectators time and time again by his exceptional ability to almost always come away with Gold.


In ancient Greece, where the Olympics originated in 776 B.C., competitors performed as individuals, even though their home cities were recognised. Whereas in modern times, the home nation is the most important aspect in the identity of the athlete. In this way the games inevitably become political. Athletes are praised as products of their nation’s ability to train and nurture those with potential. One athlete’s victory is a victory of their home country. During the Cold War, Soviet states dedicated a huge amount of resources to producing and training their athletes, believing that those who win would openly support the Soviet ideology.

Now in 2016, Britain undeniably invests huge amounts of money in their athletes, and although it probably isn't being used as a measure of power over other nations, we certainly revel in Britain's reputation as one of the best nations in the world in the Olympics. 

The patriotism that flares up during the Olympics highlights that despite claims of an ever more globalised world, nations are still very much individual, distinct places, and more patriotic than ever. Is there a difference between nationalism and patriotism? It’s difficult to know why people are born with a desire to feel pride in their country, yet the Olympics demonstrates that we are instinctively territorial, tribal and patriotic to the point that we meet the definition of nationalism. Nevertheless, the sheer elation we feel in the successes of the likes of Bolt, Biles and Phelps, just highlights that we can continue to be patriotic for our country and feel pride in our athletes, while recognising the success of others in the true Olympic spirit which recognises the talents of athletes worldwide.

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