'A Tedious Exercise in Petty Nationalism'
George Orwell, "The Sporting Spirit" (1945)
I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles. The National Post's Jonathan Kay, on Orwell's essay and the Olympics
Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved. it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe -- at any rate for short periods -- that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.
This helps explain why the Olympics continue to be such a farce. Look behind the flim-flam about building global harmony through wholesome sports competition and you will find a giant exercise in petty nationalism.
In the democratic West, this means a childish (if harmless) obsession with tracking one’s nation in the "medal count." ... Winning Olympic gold has always been such an obsession among dictatorships -- from Nazi Germany, to the USSR, to the freakish gender-benders set loose upon the world by Warsaw Pact gymnast programs. As a species of "mimic warfare" (Orwell's term), the Olympic Games allow dictators and ethnic supremacists to stir up nationalistic bloodlust without actually going through the bother of military combat.
Even in the West, there is always a great wringing of hands if our Olympiads fail to deliver the expected haul of medals -- with newspaper editors and columnists (including purported conservatives) invariably proposing Soviet-style sports programs to rectify matters four years hence, as if it somehow were a matter of national importance that our Pommel Horse Men were screwing up their dismounts.