On the Olympian Necessity of Flags

Michael O’Hare objects to the flag-waving of the modern Olympics:

I think the Olympics would be improved by potting down this insistent angle in medal ceremonies and coverage. Some events are reasonably national competitions, as there doesn’t seem any other way to make up a league of, say, basketball teams for a one-off tournament that would be of any interest. But the endless reporting of medal counts by country, and flagraising for someone who wins an individual event, which nearly all are, is crosswise to the original spirit of the modern Olympics and feels a lot like a cold war leftover, East Germany’s steroid-soaked ghost.

I beg to differ. Pierre de Coubertin was an idealist and internationalist, but a French patriot as well, in an era imbued with Social Darwinism and militarist nationalism. One of his early arguments for introducing physical education in French schools, as in British public schools, was to better fight wars with Germany. You can argue about this. But it’s quite clear that the success of the modern Olympic movement lies in in a Faustian pact with nationalism. The jettisoning of the amateur principle, which de Coubertin got from English Victorian practice not Ancient Greek, has reinforced this pact, as the Olympics are no longer a contest within an international upper class.

Consider the survival problem of the International Olympic Committee.

The IOC is a co-optative Leninist oligarchy of geriatric sportsmen.

Leninist, because it’s not elected by anybody; the national Olympic committees are its emanations, not its electorate. Its structural democratic legitimacy is zero, like Greenpeace and the old Communist parties; but of course like them it seeks wide popular support. This is needed to continue an operation which grants the members a prestige otherwise only awarded to visiting heads of state and teams of IMF inspectors descending on a bankrupt banana republic.

Olympic “Zil lanes” in London

Credit: Daily Telegraph

To keep the Olympic show on the road, the IOC has to keep persuading three groups of marks.

  • It has to find a host country and city to put up $15 billion or so to stage the Summer Games every four years. Judging by London, a third of this leaves no legacy. London spent £1.7bn on urban regeneration, which needed doing anyway, and £5.7 bn on the venues. Many of these – like a white-water canoeing course and a collapsible basketball stadium – are for sports with negligible local base, and are white elephants. The organizational demands of the IOC are so extravagant, and the loss of face from failure so great, that the project is not only inordinately expensive, it’s a major political headache. It’s a wonder there are any candidates at all. But as the winner you get to wave your flag a lot.

    Boosters of Olympic hosting claim that there are magic payoffs in prestige and tourism. Since only large cities can reasonably face the organisational challenge, and the oligarchs prefer junkets to agreeable destinations than grotty ones, recent Summer Games have always gone to cities that already have plenty of prestige and tourism. Minsk, Newark and Birmingham need not apply. The London Games have actually left the city centre shops and museums deserted – the Games have led to a substitution within tourism, not a net increase.
  • Second, the IOC has to persuade a large number of countries to spend a lot of money on élite sport to guarantee a high-class competition. It’s done by implicit blackmail: if you don’t subsidise élite sport, you won’t win any medals and will be humiliated as a nation. In any rational calculus, élite sport is of pretty low merit, compared to mass participation. Weekend hiking is far more beneficial socially than say professional basketball, but it doesn’t lend itself to the prestige con. The flagwaving is absolutely essential here.
  • Third, the IOC has to persuade 10,000 young people to give up any semblance of a normal life for four years to prepare for a competition which they will almost certainly lose. Here the flags are pretty unimportant. However, it’s the easiest challenge. Testosterone does it for them.

I infer that the current Olympic business model is unsustainable without the explicit tie to nationalism: athletes as mysterious “representatives” of their countries, national anthems, flags, and medal tables.

You can certainly make a case that the Olympics would be greatly improved by cutting this tie, dropping half the sports (commenters are invited to list their un-favourites), and banning national uniforms and anthems. It would be a much smaller and more civilised event. But is there any path to it happening, short of a truly massive failure or scandal?

De Coubertin has been criticised by scholars for romanticising the ancient Greek Olympics. They weren’t amateur, for one thing; and there wasn’t much of an ethos of gentlemanly participation, more a Vince Lombardi focus on winning. (They had no prizes for second and third). The Greeks were perfectly comfortable with the idea that the good of excellence, of winning, outweighs the bitter disappointment of the many losers. It’s much harder for us, with our Judaeo-Christian ethos of equality of worth, to justify athletic competition. Has anybody put up a good defence?

But I think Coubertin got one essential thing from the Ancient Greeks: the bait-and-switch psychological equation. The priests of the shrine of Zeus at Olympus hit, by luck of wisdom, on a clever formula that made their Games a net contributor to peace. The Greeks had a common culture – language, gods, art, trade – combined with extreme political disunity. The city-states were at loggerheads, and often at war. In the Games, cities sent athletes as representatives. If the Theban athlete won the foot-race, it was glory to Thebes. But to everybody else, their own athletes had been beaten by a better man and Greek. By this shift, a zero-sum game of prestige was transformed into a positive-sum one.

The Discobolos (a Roman copy)

Exactly the same mechanism worked at de Coubertin’s first modern Olympic Games in Paris in 1906. It’s available today, and works even better with the advent of television.

A nice example. A 15-year old Lithuanian girl, Ruta Meilutyte, has just won Lithuania’s first Olympic gold in swimming since independence. For the British press, the story is that she lives and trains in Plymouth. An honorary one of ours!

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]