The Olympics Go Beyond Sport

Jennifer Jeffs on how the Games bring us together more than they pit us against each other.
By: /
August 3, 2012
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While cheering on the sensational Missy Franklin and revelling in her speed, strength, and style (pearl earrings while swimming a race!), Canadians were tempted to cringe at the fact that though Franklin has Canadian parents, she represents the United States. As a dual citizen, she had a choice between competing for Canada and competing for the U.S. Of course, we don’t blame her for a minute for her choice. Franklin was born and raised in the U.S. and naturally feels allegiance to it. That many Canadians are sad not to be able to claim her can be explained by the nationalism the Olympics engender.  As Stephen Walt pointed out this week, the Olympics summon nationalism akin to Benedict Anderson’s conception of “imagined communities” – communities defined not always by geography or personal connections, but by a sense of interrelation among their members. The Olympics, in other words, evoke a strongly sentimental form of nationalism.

This year’s sudden change in Saudi Arabia’s gender restrictions on competitive sport means that these are the first Olympic Games in which all participating countries have sent female athletes. Furthermore, women’s boxing qualifies as an Olympic sport for the first time this summer, and hopeful champion Mary Spencer – a Canadian – could be the first North American aboriginal woman to win Olympic gold. Limitations on the rights of Saudi women and the prosperity of Canadian aboriginals aside, we triumph in the participation and success of these groups in the Olympics, this time as a global community imagined fuzzily by all. 

Another force shaping imagined communities is the ubiquitous use of social media. We have seen the power of social media to both enable and restrict the expression of athletes, viewers, and professionals. A Greek long-jumper and a Swiss soccer player have been expelled from the Games for publishing racist tweets. Two Australian swimmers were sent home promptly after competing after photos of them posing with guns surfaced online. In both instances, national committees stated the athletes acted in violation of Olympic ideals and values – the stuff of the Olympic imagined community.  Olympic athletes find themselves in diplomatic roles not to be taken lightly.

The sheer volume of social-media coverage at these Olympics has brought challenges to the Olympic committees. More than 9.66 million tweets mentioned the opening ceremonies alone. Eighty-seven per cent of Olympic attendees are said to connect via social media. To that effect, Olympic officials have attempted to regulate mobile usage to protect broadcasting rights of companies and the basic functioning of the Games. A British journalist’s Twitter account was frozen after he criticized NBC for not broadcasting the Games live in the United States, the implications of which are being debated online.

The Olympics are about more than just sport: They are unifying. As we are witnessing in London, international sport competition inspires change of many sorts, increases dialogue on important issues, and stimulates cooperation in the host city.

Toronto is hosting the Pan-American Games in 2015. A recent Globe and Mail editorial outlines why the people of Toronto should give more support to such an initiative. As we see from the example – and lessons – that London provides, it is certainly in Toronto’s best interests to do so. Like the Olympics, the Pan American Games will be about more than just sport.

Photo courtesy of Reuters