The Nazis, the IRA, the Viet Cong and the Italian fascists were all nationalist factions that promoted their own cultural, ethnic and religious unity “especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Nationalism is dangerous. It allows groups to think that they are greater than the law and the citizens of a country. It can lead to violence, war, murder, terrorism and genocide. It has fueled the two great wars that characterized the first half of the 20th century.
But, there is one case where a healthy dose of nationalism is not only acceptable but also highly encouraged: the Olympics.
On Friday, the 22nd Olympic Games opened in Sochi, Russia, with an opening ceremony that was filled to the brim with Russian nationalism. The ceremony, presented in the new Fisht Stadium built as part of the Sochi Olympic Park, featured a whirlwind tour of the history of the massive country, from Peter the Great to Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky to the Industrial Revolution. The ceremony did not portray a militant nationalism, but rather sought to celebrate a people’s achievements and culture.
Some may argue that the Olympics only reflect the skills of the athletes and has nothing to do with the athletes’ home countries. Others find the Olympics an ideal time to voice national pride. Either approach to watching the Olympics is acceptable, as long as one’s national pride does not turn into hatred for another nation and its athletes.
The Olympics remove the political issues that usually accompany nationalism. After politics is removed, one is left merely with affinity and affection for one’s own country, not necessarily an attitude that hopes for the failure of other nations. Thus the Olympics encourage spectators to put all of their energy and patriotism into cheering for their country.
The Olympics create a sense of national pride and unity that (usually) does not boil over into the hyper-patriotism or jingoism that characterizes extreme nationalism. Americans, however, admit that their pride in their Olympic team is somewhat unintelligible.
“I have no idea, yet for some silly reason I get a certain pleasure when some American I’ve never even met does well,” Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, wrote in a 2012 article in Foreign Policy. “I really have no way of knowing if the American team is nicer, smarter, more ethical, etc., than any foreign rivals. Yet I find myself cheering for a bunch of strangers who for all I know might be mostly jerks,” Walt said.
There have been instances where politics, terrorism and violence have affected the Olympics. The most famous example is the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, when members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September kidnapped and murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. A less horrific example is the 1956 “Blood in the Water” match when members of the Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams fought in the water, with Hungarian player Ervin Zádor suffering a large gash near his eye. This fight was a result of the tension and anger after the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist state.
Extreme nationalism and hate is not the norm, however, and instances of violence of this magnitude have not occurred since the Munich games.
Nationalism is a very powerful force, and it can grow into acts of violence. This cannot be stressed enough. It can lead to horrific acts of violence In the case of the Olympics, however, it can be enjoyable, as long as it is neither hostile nor exclusionary.
Just like Russia did with the opening ceremony, cheering for your home country can be a celebration of your culture, your history and the achievements of your fellow countrymen and women.
“Try it on yourself the next time you turn on the Games,” Walt wrote.
Perhaps the next time the U.S. team wins an end of curling, lands a trick in slopestyle or posts an unbelievable ice dancing score, you, too, will celebrate what makes America unique.
Richard Bordelon, FCRH ’15, is a history and political science double major from New Orleans, La.
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