The Olympics are finally here, and that can only mean one thing.
Well honestly, it can mean a lot of things, but for the sake of this argument, the Olympics serve a single purpose. These summer games represent more than just the physical peak of humanity, but rather, they are a physical manifestation of the power nationalism still holds today.
I'm a big fan of the Olympics. Their arrival every two years means that I have at least two weeks of guaranteed programming, something I find very helpful in the boring summer months when baseball is the only other major sport on-air (which for me is a poor stopgap in between the NBA Finals and the start of the college football season). Whenever I find it's time for the Olympics to start back up, I find myself not only subconsciously planning out my day so as to maximize the amount of time I can spend watching them, but I also find myself interested in the outcome of even the most trivial sporting games (with my three-week obsession with curling in 2010 as a prime example of this).
On the surface, my interest in the Olympic Games is probably the same as that of most other people. It makes for interesting TV, and it's also a chance to see new sports, hear about unheralded athletes and watch an impressive opening ceremony (though to be honest, I didn't understand Danny Boyle's opener this year; why was Voldemort there, and how can someone dance forward through time?). But the Olympics carry much more weight than just for entertainment value; they are at the same time both a melding and a divisive force. This opposite effect comes from only one source, the nationalistic setup of the games.
On one hand, the Olympics can bring together a group of people like almost no other event can, with the 1980 USA Hockey Team and the 1992 Dream Team serving as prime examples for our country. The Olympics need only one story, one underdog, or one phenomenal collection of talent, to turn an athlete or a team into a national media darling and into a force that brings people from all walks of life in the same country together. But on the other hand, the Olympics at their very heart are an exclusivist competition. There can only be one winner and any number of losers. And in that vein, only one country can claim to be the best at a certain event, while all the rest fall behind.
This may seem like an overblown view of the power of the Olympics, but it is far from being an exaggeration in the eyes' of the modern Games' history. Ever since the post-World War I years, the Games have represented a divisive force. Beginning in 1920, when all Central Powers members were banned, to Berlin's 1936 Games and Jesse Owens' famous trumping of Nazi eugenics, to the more modern example of the U.S boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics. And even now, with accusations of bribery marring the 2012 Game's location selection, the divisive force of the Olympics is still going strong.
The Olympics are in no way an inherently bad thing. But rather, they are simply a global sporting event with all other significance being made out of them from outside forces. And in this way, nationalism is neither an inherently good nor bad force. Its connotations come from what we make it. The nationalism of the Olympics can create and foster goodwill towards not only fellow members of the same country, but also its international neighbors. But on the other hand, that same nationalism can tear down any bond that could have been formed and create an "us against the world" mentality (something directly mirrored by a recent ESPN.com headline, "U.S. against the World," which was made in light of the recent U.S. vs France basketball game).
Nationalism isn't really something I think about in the post-Cold War world we live in. There are no more national representations of the "monster under the bed," no more bellicose Germanies or combative Communists in the U.S.S.R., so the idea of nationalism can seem arcane in what really is a post-modern political landscape that we live in today. But that doesn't mean that those feelings are completely gone — they are just merely under the surface of almost everyone.
The costs and benefits of the Olympics are more than just monetary (though Greece, and probably England in a few years, would argue differently). But rather, the Games also serve as a reminder of the existence of and the power of nationalism in our own world. They can bring together an entire population, but can also divide a world against itself. And that is an important reminder.
— Preston Peeden is a senior in history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.