Reilly: Tribalism And The Olympics

Feb 6, 2018

The Olympics are upon us and there’s so much to celebrate from our corner of the country. Vermont produces more winter Olympians, per capita, than any other state and we’ve been leading the pack for many years. Locally, there’s no doubt that the Olympics are a source of immense goodwill.

But the Olympics have a much more nuanced role as an engine of goodwill on the international stage.

The ancient Greek Olympics started more than two thousand seven hundred years ago, and early on, they served as brutal competitions between rival city-states – competitions that were known to occasionally end in death.

Since then, much has changed. In 1896, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee and organized the first modern Olympics. He was inspired by the worthy notion of a spirit of sportsmanship, and an honor bearing his name is still awarded at each Olympic Games.

But that spirit of sportsmanship is always at odds with the extreme nationalism that the Olympics can inspire in times of global anxiety.

Scholar David Clay Large of the Institute of European Studies has written that… these purported celebrations of one-world togetherness succeed because they indulge precisely what they claim to transcend: the world’s basest instinct for tribalism.

He points out that, at various times in modern history: French hosts targeted German athletes; Irish American players were harassed in London; and Native Americans have been paraded in an insulting Olympic side-show here at home.

After the so-called “Nazi Games” of 1936, George Orwell wrote that “international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred.”

Those are strong terms – and Orwell was famously unenthusiastic about organized sports. But there’s a lesson here that’s as relevant today as it was in 1936:

We can’t afford to confuse these games for war. We’re not rival city-states of ancient Greece, and the stakes are only as large as our collective ego. So it’s important to control that collective ego.

We can expect characteristic bluster and hubris from our leaders in Washington during these games, but we can match that bluster with a spirit of sportsmanship.

As a citizen and viewer, I’ll direct my enthusiasm into support for the dedicated athletes – from here and away – and resist the temptation to root against our perceived enemies.

We can be better.