»  National Review Online

September 28, 2000

   Rethinking the Olympics


In the matter of sports, I am George the First: I know nothing, and I desire to know nothing. For the most part this is congenital. I was a bookish, sickly and ill-coordinated child, hopeless at sports (which my English schoolmasters, like the organizers of the Olympics, had the effrontery to call "games") and unable to see the point of them until I was too old to acquire any proficiency. The height of my youthful sporting achievements was a single appearance on the roster of my school's Second Fifteen (at Rugby, that is) as a substitute — I never got to play. In later life I was once a member of a company bowling league, and attained quite a respectable average; but the objective there was not so much mens sana in corpore sano as to get drunk with office colleagues and paw each other's women. These minor exceptions aside, I am proud to declare myself a sports black hole. In this, my wife and I are soul mates: she doesn't care about sports either.

Naturally I have no trouble coming up with an ideological rationale for my indifference. I am sure that an impromptu game of soccer or softball among friends is healthful, socially bonding, and a fun way to spend an idle afternoon, for anybody that has an idle afternoon nowadays. But sport organized at any level much higher than this is essentially a totalitarian enterprise — a species of power cult. George Orwell noticed this, of course, and vented his opinion in a fine essay ("The Sporting Spirit," in vol. 4 of CEJLGO). Though he approved of traditional country pastimes that involve cruelty to animals — fishing, cock-fighting and so on — Orwell deplored "this modern cult of sport."

There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.

The reason that fascists and communists love sport is, of course, that sport has no linguistic content. Totalitarians hate language and wage constant war against it — another thing Orwell taught us. Sport is therefore the ideal lowbrow entertainment from the point of view of jealous power elites, just as ballet is the ideal highbrow entertainment. The old Soviet Union poured huge resources into both.

I am thus temperamentally and philosophically indifferent — even mildly hostile — to sporting events. What, then, are these whoops of joy, these groans of despair emanating from the Derbyshire living-room during the Olympics? Oh, that's my wife. But didn't I just say that she cares as little about sports as I do? Yes; however, my wife is a native of the People's Republic of China, and that makes a difference — at any rate when her countrymen are competing. She follows their progress keenly, and cheers when they win, and is vexed when they lose. "Better we should compete like this than by fighting wars," is her only defense — true, of course, but trivially true, since anything is better than fighting wars.

Just why the national factor makes a difference for her is an interesting question. I don't think that having been raised in a totalitarian country has much to do with it. Very little else of her political education stuck — I know far more about Marxism-Leninism than she does, thanks to having read Prof. Kolakowski at an impressionable age. Besides, the Japanese take their Olympics even more seriously than the Chinese. When a Frenchman beat a Japanese on a bad decision in a judo match, the newswoman who reported the result on Japanese TV cracked up; her eyes filled with tears and she was unable to continue. Probably what we have here is a phenomenon common to all those countries that have traditionally subordinated the individual to the group.

It is perhaps more interesting to ask why we Anglo-Saxons are so insouciant about our country's success (or, in the case of my native country, lack of success) at the Olympics. I don't know any Americans that are following the Olympics closely — certainly not with the engagement my wife displays — and I knew precious few even during the Atlanta games in 1996. I don't think it has always been like this. I am old enough to remember the soccer World Cup in England in 1966, which the English team won. Everyone was thrilled about it, and the victory was generally regarded as a boost for the second Wilson administration, which promptly — and ultimately, of course, disastrously — set about nationalizing everything in sight. Plainly national pride no longer has the hold on our imaginations it had 34 years ago.

There was a time when I felt a bit snooty about this, a bit superior. I used to tell myself that we Anglos, with our exquisite irony and detachment, our cultural lead in everything (first into industrialism, first out of it, first into world-wide imperialism, first out of it …) were ahead of these lesser folk, with their primitive enthusiasms for their own footling national successes, their whooping and hollering for a bronze in synchronized swimming. Now I'm not so sure. I certainly don't feel snooty any more.

I write quite often on what I think of privately as "The National Question" in the four manifestations of it with which I am most familiar — the English, the Irish, the American and the Chinese. Just a few weeks ago I wrote a piece for the VDARE webzine titled Importing Sino-Fascism? , about the belligerent and frankly racist form of patriotism currently being promoted by the Chinese Communist Party and commonly encountered among younger Chinese people. Well, I could do without — and the world could very well do without — the belligerence and the racism; but I am bound to report that among the comments this piece generated were a couple from sober, intelligent Americans who said: "Good luck to them. I wish our people were as fierce in defense of our country."

I don't think you could ever get Americans to behave like Japanese or Chinese. We just don't have that heritage of subservience to the group. It seems to me, though, that we have taken our insouciance too far. A little more patriotic fervor wouldn't hurt. A little more attention to our country's successes — even those of the petty kind represented by Olympic medals — would be encouraging. Notwithstanding the guff about globalization, this is still a nation, with a personality as distinctive as Japan's, and as worth preserving.

The Olympics, for all the commercialization, for all the crudity and sappy "personal interest" emoting and PC absurdities, can yet remind us of the great truth expressed by another graduate of a totalitarian education, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (I have lifted it from chapter 12 of Peter Brimelow's Alien Nation, a book well worth reading in this context):

The disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less than if all people were made alike, with one character, one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, they are its generalized personalities: the smallest of them has its own particular colors, and embodies a particular facet of God's design.

When the Olympics comes on tonight, I think I'll join my wife in the living-room.