Nationalism first became obnoxious at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics in 1984 when Katarina Witt won the gold medal in skating. She was attractive, charming, even slightly shy, but (shudder!) she represented the evil East Germany. What’s worse, she competed against the favorite going into the competition, Rosalynn Sumners of the United States, who gave the impression of thinking she deserved the medal just for being cute, wanting it badly, and, if nothing else, for being American (although she lived in Canada). I say, “gave the impression,” because I did not know her, and she probably had many great qualities that never came across in her interviews. I give her full benefit of the doubt.
Whatever network was carrying the broadcast then showed only events where Americans were expected to do well, gloated every few minutes how many medals USA had won, and implied even God wanted Sumners to win over any product of the vile Communist system. They could find nothing good to say about Witt and crowed at her every mistake. But Witt was hot, and, Communist or not, I remained her secret fan.
Now, I find, this attitude was only from our TV coverage. The Olympic Committee itself did not even list the medals by country until four years later.
And now the pendulum is swinging back to the original Olympic ideal of a world game of individuals. Many athletes today are born in one country but train in another. Some have two or three passports and can pick who they want to represent. We are much more an international community than we were in 1984.
The Chinese got their money’s worth with this Olympics, whatever the cost. We were used to thinking of China in terms of the old Maoist government with their baggy suits and bland, inefficient regimentation. The Olympic preparations and ceremonies showed them to be fully grounded in the twenty-first century, having the ability to organize major projects, open to innovation, and with a firm grip on the use of technology. Even peasants in the hinterland, seemingly unaffected by the urban advances, expressed their national pride and an expectation of continued improvements that will soon have to be accommodated.
The closing ceremonies contrasted for the world the classy, CEO-looking, Beijing official with the visiting mayor of London. Baggy suits and paunches have shifted to the West.