The Olympic Games always generate a wave of “scoreboard nationalism,” as Matthew Barganier dubs it. The equation of athletic triumph with the superiority of one’s race/culture/politico-economic system is, of course, bollocks. A part of me wants to say: “The victory of American athletes vindicates the capitalist way of life. Our economic system produces the surplus wealth necessary to fund the training of champions.” Or something like that. But, of course, if China takes a few medals from us, I want to say: “Well, consider the opportunity cost. The Chinese government spends outrageous amounts of money on athletics, and that’s money that could have been spent by the Chinese people on goods and services they value more.”
My judgment on China is the more trustworthy one. You cannot judge any society or economic system based on its performance in a single field of endeavor. Even a poor totalitarian regime can do well at just one thing by pouring its wealth into it. To applaud the nation’s performance in that one area, without considering the sacrifices it has made elsewhere, is to measure benefits while sweeping costs under the rug. And that goes for the U.S., too: the resources we spend on athletics could be spent elsewhere.
So athletic nationalism makes little sense. But on the other hand, it’s usually pretty harmless. I’d far rather see jingoism play out on the soccer field than on the battlefield. And besides, allegiance to sports teams is always fairly arbitrary. People I know root vehemently for the L.A. Lakers every year, simply because they’re based in L.A. (with players drawn from all over the country, and a team name drawn from Minnesota). Why? Because sports are more fun when you feel personally involved, so you pick somebody and choose to identify with them. In the case of Olympic sports, many of which the general public witnesses only once every four years, few spectators will know the athletes by name or reputation, and thus we need some other way of choosing who to identify with. Nationality works as well as anything else.