What the Olympics can teach us about nationalism

Like most of you, I'm spending some time these days watching the Olympics. It's especially fun to see more obscure sports like fencing, table tennis, and beach volleyball get their moments in the sun, and there are always a few upsets and feel-good stories to keep us riveted. And for the record, I thought that utterly wacky opening ceremony was flat-out brilliant.

But given my day job, I can't help but see the Olympics as a sublimely teachable moment about nationalism. Every Olympic year I ask my students who they rooted for, and whether they got a subtle thrill when one of their countrymen won. Are they disappointed when one of their fellow nationals loses out? Of course, the vast majority of students admit that they tend to do just that, and I'll confess to similar instincts myself.

But the next question I ask them is "Why? Why do you care? Is it because you know the actual people involved?" Of course not. I don't root for Ryan Lochte of the United States over Yannick Agnel of France because I know them both personally, and I happen to like Lochte more, or because my personal knowledge of the two tells me that Lochte is more deserving in some larger sense (i.e., he works harder, has overcome more obstacles, etc.). I have no idea, yet for some silly reason I get a certain pleasure when some American I've never even met does well. This tendency is even more true about team events: I really have no way of knowing if the American team is nicer, smarter, more ethical, etc., than any of their foreign rivals. Yet I find myself cheering for a bunch of strangers who for all I know might be mostly jerks.

But even though I know all this, most of the time I can't quite stop myself from being inwardly pleased when the Stars and Stripes is up on the podium, and I can't help feeling a bit disappointed when some American individual or team flames out. Some of this tendency may be due to the fact that coverage here in the United States tends to focus on the American athletes (and in a pretty flattering way), but that is itself both a reflection of nationalism (NBC knows that American viewers want to watch their countrymen) and one of the things that reinforces those beliefs.

Which is of course why my students say much the same thing, no matter where they are from. This feature of nationalism is what Benedict Anderson famously meant by the phrase "imagined community." A nation is a group of people that imagines itself to be part of a common family, even though most of the members do not know each other personally (and might not like each other if they did). Yet they have the sense of being tied together, to the extent that when one member of the groups succeeds (or fails) it actually affects how other members who don't even know them feel.

This tendency isn't absolute, of course (i.e., there may be some U.S. athletes I don't care much for, just as there are some members of the Boston Red Sox I've never warmed to very much). And in those cases, I won't be sorry if they don't emerge triumphant. But the general rule applies, because nationalism remains an incredibly powerful political force. Try it on yourself the next time you turn on the Games.

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