After your city has hosted the Olympics the games are never quite the same. Regardless of whether any real controversies arise, all subsequent hosts are inevitably viewed through a lens of hyper-competitive criticism, jealousy, and even spite as an endless “ours-versus-theirs” narrative continues for decades (Montreal newspapers are still churning out “how did ours compare” editorials some 35 years later).
Over here in Vancouver, this insecure syndrome has been particularly acute, especially since the international media has made it very clear that our 2010 games didn’t really “count” in the official Olympic canon — all references to “last time” are invariably to China; the lowly winter games being a charming practice run, at best — not to mention the inescapably depressing cultural disparity between a lowly Canadian city with a population just over 600,000 and one of the world’s great capitals of art, commerce, and politics. Why couldn’t we have gone before the Mogadishu Olympics or something?
Still, competitiveness aside, one of the more interesting things to observe is just how similar these two games have been, and the ways in which two of the world’s great English-speaking nations have collectively forged some new Olympic precedents for all subsequent host nations.
Canada, for instance, initially came under some fire for not sufficiently toning down its own national patriotism in favor of the bland one-worldism that has been traditionally expected from host countries. Some even compared us to Nazis, and though that was a bit much, all the chauvinistic self-indulgence on display two years ago was undeniably grating and smothering, as I noted at the time.
London? Not much different. Their opening ceremonies were every bit as cloying, cliched, self-righteous, and political (even Canada didn’t have the audacity to include “a salute to health care”), their public every bit as cocksure and boisterous, and their press equally unapologetic in its patriotic boosterism at the expense of critical self-awareness. A great example of the latter, in particular, was the short-lived career of Guardian columnist Harrison Mooney, a Vancouverite originally recruited by the British paper to say mean things about the games as payback for the infamous pettiness of the British press during 2010. Though only tongue-in-cheek, Mooney was nevertheless quietly canned after just a few columns for being too much of a downer.
As we head towards the games in Russia and Rio, the consensus now seems to be pretty clear that the Olympics are a showcase for domestic nationalism, full stop. You could see that trend beginning in Beijing, whose ceremonies and festivities, though far more neutral, worldly, and generic, were nevertheless widely perceived as a demonstration of China’s burgeoning national might. Britain and Canada have simply emphasized the highly insular nature of their own perceived superiority.
Perhaps that unto itself says something quite revealing about the state of patriotism in the 21st century; as our world becomes more borderless and globalized in practice, the need for self-confidently nationalistic spectacles — even meaningless ones — becomes that much more important. As our anxieties rise over the fact that we’re all increasingly eating the same mass-produced or multicultural foods and working for the same outsource-happy transnational corporations, maybe it’s inevitable that the Olympics would necessarily have to become a refuge for nationalism, just as in the bloody 20th century they were so often a refuge from it.
Granted, anxieties over the traditional trappings of nationalism have never been greater, either. There were no references to the British Empire in London’s opening ceremonies, for example, but plenty of sops to immigration and interracial dating. Almost every aspect of Canada’s games, likewise, from the mascot designs to the font choices, were nervously selected to acknowledge our marginalized aboriginal population at the expense of the country’s far more influential Anglo heritage. The end result is a distinctly post-modern patriotic spectacle that’s as paradoxically insecure as it is self-confident, born from nations as eager to minimize their undeniable attributes as they are to exaggerate the importance of the trivial. We need to feel good about ourselves, but only in the most ostentatiously progressive and conciliatory ways. We’ll show the world we’re the best — at reducing our national identities to the most non-threatening collection of feel-good tropes. Perhaps then they’ll be more forgiving of our drunken victory shrieks at 3 am.
What’s the Russian equivalent of a hundred Marry Poppins fighting Lord Volemort? Or the Brazilian version of William Shatner making jokes about sex in a canoe? We’ll find out soon enough.
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