The Olympic Games: Friendly Competition?
People often describe Olympic athletes as representatives of their countries, and when our countrymen/countrywomen perform their amazing athletic feats, they are supposedly doing it for all of us. On a purely rational level, I find this idea rather strange. I can't think of any way, after all, that my country's medal count impacts me personally. What I find even stranger, however, is the tendency of sports fans to take pride in their country or team's athletic achievements. When you hear some sports fans talk about their team's recent victory or defeat, these enthusiasts seem to believe that they personally played a role in winning or losing. On call-in talk shows after Lakers games, in fact, I will often hear fans refer to the Lakers players as "we."
The Olympic Games tend to accentuate these tendencies. The concepts of sports fan and patriot get wrapped up together, and rivalries between nations can carry over to the sports arena. In theory, the Olympics are supposed to be a force for peace, with nations putting aside their differences for at least a couple of weeks every four years in a celebration of athletic competition. But the concept of peaceful competition is a bit of an oxymoron, and the desire to defeat the opponent can trump any idealistic notions of countries coming together. And the more intense the political competition in the real world, the more each side will want to win. All you need to do is watch the reactions of the host fans or listen to the sports commentators to see the degree to which countries succumb to patriotic cheerleading.
This is why the golden age of the Olympics was during the height of the Cold War from the 1950's through the 1980's. The two global superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, also happened to be the athletic superpowers, dueling it out to amass the most medals. And since the Cold War was as much a battle of ideologies and international public opinion as it was an arms race, it was impossible to keep the politics out of the Olympic arena. For just as with the space race, Olympic victory could feed each side's propaganda machine, demonstrating to the world the superiority of its society. So forget Dodgers/Giants, Army/Navy, Lakers/Celtics, or Yankees/Red Sox. The athletic struggles between the United States and Soviet Union represented the greatest sports rivalry of all time.
One of the greatest sports moments I ever witnessed was the victory of the United States hockey team over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, New York in 1980. This was the only time in my life, in fact, that I ever got excited about a hockey game. Amazingly, this group of amateurs thrown together shortly before the games managed to beat a team of Soviet professionals that had defeated the NHL all-stars not long before. And what made this even sweeter was the increased Cold War intensity that had erupted after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few months earlier. Later that summer, in fact, the United States would protest the Soviet invasion by not attending the Olympic games in Moscow, and to return the favor, the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles games in 1984. This made it crystal clear once and for all that the Olympics could not be shielded from international politics. Of course, anyone paying attention had known this for some time.
Some would argue that China has replaced the Soviet Union as the United States' main competition as a global and athletic superpower. And there is no doubt that China views it's team's athletic performance as vital to its national interests. But while there is no doubt that China is an outstanding athletic rival, it's still not the same as the Cold War. For in my mind, the United States and China are more codependents than rivals. Sure, the two nations often publicly criticize and disagree with one another, and many Americans view the economic resurgence of China as both a threat and a sign of American decline. But China needs American consumers to buy their exports, and the American government needs the Chinese to take those dollars and buy treasury bonds. So the threat of war is not looming as it was during the height of the Cold War. Each side has little to gain and everything to lose from any sort of armed conflict.
Still, it is an entertaining rivalry, and to get excited about sports, we humans need someone to cheer. And if nothing else, cheering athletes on as they battle opponents from other countries is better than cheering soldiers on as they slaughter one another. Since we humans are apparently programmed for battle, sports can provide a healthy outlet. I suspect, however, that the most rational people involved with the Olympic Games are the athletes themselves. People who have devoted themselves to their sports at this level, no matter what country they come from, share a bond that the overwhelming majority of us could never understand. And since they all have tasted defeat at many times throughout the process, they will tend to feel more empathy for their opponents than those fans who may see uniforms and flags on television instead of people.