Olympic cosmopolitanism and flag-waving

Flags, flags everywhere.You see them on scaffolding, on the streets, tied to railings, wrapped around revelers, sold at kiosks, snapping from flagpoles, imprinted on hats and torsos, and, of course, filling stadium and venue seats, anywhere from postage-stamp to room size. What is it about the world’s most cosmopolitan, international event, this color- and gender-blind gathering of sportsmen and women from around the world, that never fails to bring out the banner-waving and vocally partisan in those who follow them?  Olympics-goers seem to fall into one of two categories: either the festive, occasionally raucous crowds who wear the national colors, paint their faces and hair in the same hues, and sit and cheer in unison; or the unconnected fans, usually but not always local, who go for the athleticism and the occasion and to show support and interest for all the athletes. The former add color and enthusiasm to the more minor sports: the Chinese at table tennis, Koreans at badminton, Japanese at judo, Greeks at weightlifting (and, at Athens, anywhere else where there’s hope of a medal). The latter may be less heard or appreciated, but are no less vital to the success of something like an Olympics. Monday brought more examples. The softball final, won 5-1 by the American team (which, more tellingly, outscored the opposition by some 51-1 during the competition), was awash in red, white and blue even during these toned-down times for the US team. The same was true later at the beach volleyball arena in Faliron, which featured (along with a raucous DJ and dancing girls, a nice new Olympian touch) an all-American semifinal match-up as Kerry Walsh and Misty May defeated Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs. And at Sunday evening’s sultry finish of the marathon race, Union Jacks, Tricolors and Red Suns were all over as partisans waited for their own athletes to appear, one by one, steaming or stumbling in their last few meters to the finish line, 42.195 kilometers and nearly two-and-a-half hours from where they started in northeast Attica. Swathes of British fans were crestfallen as their heroine, Paula Radcliffe, a pre-race favorite, dropped out and broke down sobbing on the roadside. And the crush of Japanese photographers and writers pursuing Mizuki Noguchi, the diminutive winner, anticipated a huge national story there. She was still being led around the stadium holding a bouquet an hour after her win. A spirited, healthy sort of nationalism can encourage athletes to perform better and generate interest back home, especially if a team is involved. Yet at its elite level, sport creates a sort of comradeship or fraternity among those who do it competitively. National markers fall away when there’s enough sweat involved. Perhaps the general audience, the Greeks and others who came for the occasion and buy tickets just to watch an event, can appreciate this more than the flag wavers; they cheer each arriving runner or goal scored in turn, give a cheer to the slowest in heats, and treat them as committed people engaging in top-level sport and not just as compatriots. Gone, presumably, are the days of destructive nationalism, when Olympics participation was subject to the whim of governments and athletes became political pawns through boycotts. Systematic doping as national policy was a particularly insidious and dangerous form of this, which presumably (despite continuing controversies) is a thing of the past. Running alongside such elements is a fun-loving, if occasionally crude, form of chauvinism, with a colorful, sometimes off-color side too: the drunken partisans wandering the streets at night draped in their national flags. It is a credit to Greek officials that such harmless revelry is allowed to blow off its steam. The Games have always blended the national and the international, sometimes in awkward ways. Organizationally, the International Olympic Committee presides over the operation, but leaves a great deal of autonomy in the hands of national committees, which pick teams and run their schedules. On a bed, it would look like a patchwork quilt; some can see the blending, others just a mishmash. At the Olympic Village, where most of them live together, the athletes also live separately via national contingent. The scene is a natural one when it comes to team sports; handball and baseball and hockey teams can only be picked by nation. Team duos are the same; tennis doubles pairs and beach volleyball two-man teams can only fly the one flag. Things are a bit odder in individualistic sports; it required a double take to see Justine Henin-Hardenne, crowned Saturday evening as the women’s tennis gold medalist after she beat Amelie Mauresmo, referred to as «Belgium versus France.» The world No. 1 said afterward that the flag-waving atmosphere couldn’t be compared with a Grand Slam tennis event. The Olympics were never a purely international endeavor. In antiquity, they were limited to Greeks; partisanship was a matter for Greek city-states, which often competed for athletes’ loyalty beforehand in anticipation of reflected glory and enhanced reputation in case of victory. The modern reinvention, under Pierre de Coubertin, was very much based on national ideals, notably beefing up the French national character, even while promoting international good will. National displays at the Games are no disgrace; they are a developmental consequence of it all. They have also helped fill the stands at less-known sports which locals could not be bothered to get out for. Still, it’s worth hoping that the cheering will be as loud for athletes from elsewhere as those from next door, and that sporting excellence and effort will be enough cause for cheers and congratulations. That, like the timeless Panathenaic Stadium itself, emptied of its partisan fans late at night, is a universal offering to sport itself.

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