Olympic-sized Imaginations

gold medal of 2018 Winter Olympics

The modern Olympic Games have always had an internal tension between uniting the peoples of the world in one global competition and promoting national pride. The ideal of the Olympics can be seen in the shift between the opening ceremony’s parade of nations, with athletes entering according to the country they represent, to the closing ceremony, during which athletes enter as a single, united body. The local media emphasis, though, continually highlights the medal count by nation and the success of athletes on the nation’s team. The formation of the national team, though, raises questions about who counts as part of the nation and demonstrates the ways the national identification is something constructed, not just a natural occurrence.

In the 2018 Winter Olympics, the challenge to the nation-state is apparent in the joint Korean team, both in the opening ceremony and in the women’s hockey team. Despite significant geo-political tensions between the two Koreas (and perhaps because of those tensions), the leaders decided to emphasize a different notion of Korean nationality that ignores the two states on the peninsula and thus highlights the arbitrary, constructed nature of the contemporary nation-state. Yet, the contradictions extend further. The Korean women’s hockey team scored the first hockey goal ever by Korea in the Winter Olympics last Wednesday, but the woman who scored it is an American citizen. Randi Griffin grew up in North Carolina, attended Harvard (where she also played hockey), and has pursued a Ph.D. at Duke University. Because her mom emigrated from South Korea to the United States, the South Korean team invited her to play for South Korea, which then became the united Korean team. Perhaps this represents the Olympic spirit, but it also illustrates the complexity of maintaining a national identity despite the diversity and complicated associations of the citizens of any nation. Continue reading “Olympic-sized Imaginations”

Making the Arbitrary Natural

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Despite the rhetoric about the Olympics bringing the world together peacefully to celebrate athletic achievement, the competition is oddly divided according to “their genitalia and the patch of land on which they were born” (as colleague Craig Martin put it on Facebook). We see some wonderful examples of international goodwill, certainly (some listed here), but the arbitrary divisions dominate, both through the flag-waving spectators in the stands and the daily medal counts according to nation in the media. Whether it is people in India cheering P.V. Sindhu, who reached the Badminton women’s individual finals last Friday, or people in the United States cheering for Simone Biles’ five medal performance in gymnastics, the division into nationalities takes on the appearance of being a natural description.

The organization of the Olympics, demonstrated from the Opening Ceremony Parade of Nations, and the media coverage that focuses on the nation’s athletes make the nation appear to be a natural division, an obvious identifier (a la Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities). We often cheer for people from our own country because their victory brings us status, even though we have little if anything in common with the athletes, potentially being from different regions, living within different social networks, holding different commitments, etc. Continue reading “Making the Arbitrary Natural”

Rhetorical Unity

Rassemblement_Charlie_Hebdo_5_–_RambouilletThe many rallies in Paris and elsewhere yesterday provide an intriguing example of the malleability of unity as a symbol. The crowd in Paris, according to reports, was both enormous and diverse, including a range of foreign dignitaries and political leaders. In addition to various European leaders from Russia, Germany, and Britain alongside the President of France, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas both participated. The Guardian described the Paris march,

This was a nationwide outpouring of grief, solidarity and defiance. Parisiens of all ages, religions and nationalities turned out en masse not only to show their respect for the victims but their support for the values of the Republic: “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Continue reading “Rhetorical Unity”

Who are the Britons?

BritonsWatching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” this weekend, I was struck by the scene where King Arthur introduces himself to a few of his subjects, who happen not to see themselves as his subjects. Continue reading “Who are the Britons?”