Archive | September, 2012

Olympics, 2012 — The Positive Side of Patriotism.

20 Sep

  Is patriotism a good thing? The answer as usual is both “yes” and “no”. It is certainly good to feel a sense of pride in the achievements of one’s country and countrymen ( and women.) As a citizen of the United Kingdom I experienced the great feel-good factor generated by my country’s successes at the London Olympics and Paralympics. As each medal was won and personal best broken by British and Northern Irish athletes, I too walked tall and basked in the reflected glow of their success. My pride increased as our position in the medal table got higher and higher. ( However, I do admit to worrying about the feelings of the athletes who came 4th or below and whether they thought of themselves as failures who had let the country down somehow. It was sad to hear our top male 400 metres runner apologise on television for finishing outside the medal positions.)

   I also felt great about Andy Murray’s victory in the US Tennis Open, the first Grand Slam title to be won by a British man since Fred Perry in 1936. What a great achievement for Britain, even though as a child, Andy was packed off to tennis school in Spain to learn his skills and is now coached by a Czech.( the great Ivan Lendl.) Although Andy is not one of the most lovable characters on a tennis court, with his snarling and swearing, I still supported him because he is British like me and so in a small way I revelled in the glory of his fantastic achievement. Patriotism, especially in sport, can be a positive, life-affirming force. One person’s or team’s achievements can raise the self esteem of a whole nation.

  Unfortunately, patriotism, if taken too far, can also lead to undesirable consequences. What happens if the support for one’s country is so fervent that it becomes bellicose and negative. What happens if it leads to bias and the failure to recognise other nations’ achievements. This drift into negativity is particularly noticable in football where the other team and its supporters become the “enemy” and are sometimes greeted with verbal and even physical aggression. The tabloid press often whips up negative emotions by talking about “grudge matches”, “revenge”, and “hatred”,mentioning past wars and indulging in national stereotyping. So we get Argentinian players described as “cheats” following their exaggeration of injuries or off the ball fouling behind the referees back, while German teams are routinely labelled as coldly mechanical and efficient.

  Patriotism can also easily morph into chauvenism. In world affairs such chauvenism on both sides has led to the tragedy of war. In the world of sport it can lead to: tension, animosity and trouble. Luckily, this negative trait seem to have been largely avoided at the recent Olympics in London. Reports say that our enthusiastic British crowds cheered and applauded the achievements of competitors from many different nations as well as their own. To a certain extent it seems to have been a celebration of sport rather than of nationalism. This can only be a good thing. I suppose it’s what the modern Olympic ideal is all about — bringing people together from all over the World in a spirit of peace and togetherness, simply to celebrate sporting endeavour and excellence. My friend Vic, who was at Hyde Park to witness the Triathlon, was so impressed by this feeling of international friendship that he compared it to the rebirth of the 1960’s Hippie Dream. Can you remember those heady, idealistic days of “Flower Power” when The Beatles sang “All You Need Is Love” and we all fervently wished that that would be true. The media dubbed it “The Summer of Love” ( 1967), but many of us hoped it would last a lot longer than that. It is indeed a very good thing if just a little of the spirit of that age has been re-ignited.

  London 2012 certainly seems to have been an inspirational event and it’s a pleasure to be writing about good news instead of carping on about the bad. Please note for the record, that I am not a “grumpy old man” all of the time! Patriotism  seems to have been a mostly positive force this summer, although it was helped immensely by the home team winning lots of medals, the Union Jack being frequently hoisted and “God Save the Queen” being constantly sung. ( by those of her “subjects” who knew the words.)  Success breeds tolerance and generosity of spirit.

  On only a few occasions did I notice one of patriotism’s less desirable features — selective blindness. Another friend, Ian, commented that whenever a UK competitor won a silver or a bronze medal, we heard all about their story in the media but virtually nothing about the foreign athlete who had actually won the gold. It was as if that Olympic Champion was invisible because he or she wasn’t British. There was the odd exception of course, such as Usain Bolt, but largely the foreign champions remained in obscurity. The BBC and Channel 4 coverage was generally regarded as excellent. I only dipped into it every now and again, not wishing to turn into a total couch potato. However, I was disappointed to catch the discussion about the Womens’ 1500 metres final where two Turkish girls won Gold and Silver in impressive style. Looking at the replay, their running was sheer poetry in motion. The 2 brave British girls tried hard and had done very well to get to the final, but they came well down the field. After briefly mentioning that these were Turkey’s first ever athletics medals at the Olympics, the presenter quickly pointed out that the winner had recently come back from a drugs ban. The implication was that she had possibly cheated her way to success. The whole ensuing discussion was thus about drugs misuse instead of Turkish success.The BBC commentators failed to mention that 2 British athletes, one male and one female, had also competed in the Olympics  after serving bans for taking performance-enhancing drugs. In fact , one had gone on to win gold and silver at consecutive Olympics. It seems that patriotic TV presenters notice foreign “drug cheats” but fail to see British ones.

  Another example of patriotic blindness is in the adoption of foreign athletes as British ones. One remembers the South African distance runner Zola Budd, helped by the Daily Mail, having her British citizenship application processed in record time so that she was able to run for Britain at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She couldn’t run for her own country because its apartheid system had led to it being banned from the games, but “luckily” she had a British grandparent. We have also had this phenomenum in the case of South African cricketers: Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Kevin Petierson all qualifying to play for England and the Canadian born tennis player Greg Rusedski ( German father, English mother) representing Britain in the Davis Cup. In the London Olympics, one of the most celebrated “British” successes was that of Mo Farrah who won both the 10,000 and the 5000 metres in fantastic style. However, everyone basking in the glow of his victories seem to have forgotten that he was actually born in the Sudan and does most of his training in the USA under an American coach. Is this really a British success? I suppose it’s as big an achievement for Britain as one of Pieterson’s centuries.( when he is not tweeting his South African mates in the middle of a test match.)

  But I’m falling into one of the traps of patriotism myself. Surely, sporting excellence is great irrespective of nationality? We should not, in my opinion, be blinkered into only seeing our own countrymen’s successes. I believe we ought to celebrate the achievement of the human being rather than the flag he or she happens to be playing under.

   Patriotism then can be a powerful force for good, but has to be handled with care. if kept under control it can make a whole nation feel positive about itself and can help to inspire a new generation to emulate the achievements of their compatriots. If allowed to run out of control it can lead to bias and unfairness and worse. Thankfully, London 2012, seems to have largely avoided these pitfalls. It was a celebration of internationalism at its best and a welcome victory for the forces of good. Despite my slight moans and gripes, I really enjoyed the games. They turned out to be a spectacular example of the positive side of patriotism.