- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
NATIONALISM AND THE GAMES
The U.S. Olympic Committee has given its blessing to a combative advertising campaign by the Miller Brewing Co., the sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. In TV commercials and ads that have appeared in 10 magazines, including SI, Miller is soliciting donations to the center with this ringing exhortation: LET'S WIN THE GAMES AGAIN.
That's hardly the first chauvinistic note to be injected into the Olympics, of course. The founder of the modern Games, Baron de Coubertin, wanted athletes to participate as individuals rather than as members of teams representing countries, a spectacularly unrealistic dream still echoed in a section of the IOC charter that describes as "dangerous" to Olympic ideals "certain tendencies" toward the "national exaltation of the results gained." That the IOC itself allows the playing of national anthems and the raising of national flags during Olympic medal ceremonies hasn't exactly discouraged those tendencies. At any rate, nationalistic exaltation of Olympic deeds isn't limited to any one country, witness the patriotic fervor following the Soviet win in basketball in 1972 and the U.S. ice hockey victory in 1980.
But the idea of a country "winning the Olympics," as distinct from winning a basketball or hockey game, is another matter. A national winner has never been officially selected at the Olympics, and efforts by the press to designate one unofficially by means of points haven't worked out very well. There's the question of how many points to assign placings in events; if one country wins 38 gold medals and 22 silver medals and another country 31 golds and 35 silvers, which has "won?" And should victories in team sports such as basketball and soccer count as one medal or multiple medals? What about countries like East Germany, Hungary and Finland, which may not win the most medals but do exceptionally well on a per capita basis?
For a long time such considerations were no impediment to those bent on declaring national triumphs. The U.S. was accepted as the "winner" of most of the early summer Olympics, and in 1948 the USOC actually included in its official report press-compiled point totals indicating that the U.S. had outscored runner-up Sweden 759 to 435¼ in that year's Summer Games in London. The Soviet Union began competing in the Olympics in 1952, and soon Soviet officials were talking openly of "winning" the Games. In fact, except for 1968, when the U.S. fared better overall, the U.S.S.R. probably would have "won" every Summer Olympics since 1956 had there been official standings.
With the easing of Cold War tensions, though, an odd thing happened. Not only did the USOC stop printing point totals—given the U.S.S.R.'s athletic prowess, that's not surprising—but the world press has pretty much stopped doing so, too, generally confining itself instead to the tabulation of comparative medal counts. And for all the importance they continue to attach to strong Olympic showings by their athletes, even Soviet officials seem to speak less openly these days about "winning" the Games. Indeed, the reigning Olympic etiquette now seems to frown on bold assertions of national victory.
According to Todd Clay, a spokesman for Miller High Life, USOC officials resisted before giving their consent to Miller's "let's win the Games again" pitch. "They said, 'Wait a minute. America doesn't win the Games, individuals do,' " Clay relates. "But we felt it would be easier to raise money if we worked the national pride angle."
It's possible to argue that Miller's ad campaign merely reflects the nationalistic realities of the Olympics. But a case can also be made that, in view of the rampant jingoism that otherwise infects the Games, the taboo against talk of national Olympic victory is worth honoring. Miller and the USOC probably would have been better advised to do just that.
DON'T SELL GREG SHORT
49 YARDS AND A CLOUD OF NEWSPRINT