The nation-state may be "finished" (R. Bartley, Editor, Wall Street Journal). But you sure wouldn't know watching the Olympics. In Sydney, old-fashioned nationalism reigns. The collapse of the transnational communism has allowed the modern Olympics to get back to its original purpose: Like the Daily Beast newspaper in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, the games once again stand for rivalries among "strong, mutually antagonistic" nations.
The Opening Ceremony's parade is always a fascinating display of human biodiversity wrapped in the gorgeous multiplicity of traditional costumes that millennia of monoculturalism have bequeathed to us. Every four years, I especially look for the Mongolian flag-bearer. He is usually a massive wrestler or weightlifter who boldly grasps the heavy flagpole in just one beefy hand. He clothes his thick torso and short limbs, so characteristic of the peoples of the Eurasian steppe, in little besides what appears to be the traditional Mongolian bejeweled jock strap.
In the post-nationalist's fantasy, the Olympics wouldn't be organized by anything so passé as nationality. Instead, athletes sponsored by Coke would battle Nike's hired guns for world marketing supremacy. The only problem with this vision: nobody would watch. (Well, I'd watch, but I'm a sports statistics geek.)
In these hypothetical Globalist Games, how would you know whom to root for? What normal humans want out of spectator sports is a Good Guy to support. Over millions of years, our ancestors evolved a fascination with conflict. This was a crucial educational tool in the prehistoric world, where, judging by the horrendous violent death rates that contemporary hunter-gatherers inflict upon each other, people needed to be aficionados of fighting just to survive. Thus we tend to identify with one contestant in order to raise our interest level. The only question: how we decide.
There are a lot of options. People have often rooted for their own race, or religion, or class, or ideology. What people don't cheer for much, despite the brilliance of modern advertising agencies, are corporations. The main exceptions are fans that are also employees or investors, or customers with a lot of money and pride invested in their purchases. Thus, Ford owners looking for bragging rights might cheer on the Ford stock car racing factory team. Similarly, college alumni want their school's team to win to keep up the value of their résumés.
In general, however, people root for those who represent their region. Nebraska's high school dropouts still cheer for the U. of Nebraska football team. The citizens of St. Louis pull for the St. Louis Cardinal baseball team, whether or not it features a single player from St. Louis. And in the Olympics, spectators support their own countries' athletes.
It doesn't matter if you think rowing is the most boring sport imaginable and you don't even want to think about what "coxless pairs" might be. When the race starts, well, they may be a coxless pair, but, dammit, they're our coxless pair!
What the post-nationalists fail to consider is that humans want to divide themselves up into rival groups. If they don't form teams based on the legal concept of nationality, they will do it some other way. Deconstruct American patriotism via mass immigration and the ensuing explosion of identity politics will reach the point where Americans stop rooting for Olympic athletes just because they are their fellow American citizens.
Watch out. When patriotism collapses, as Eastern Europe shows, race wars can rapidly ensue.
September 27, 2000