Virtual Voices

Patriotism is not boosterism

Sports

I have suffered a few aspersions because, though I am now an American citizen, I nonetheless felt an affinity for the Canadian Olympic hockey team, and even thought it was right that they should win the gold medal. Someone went so far as to suggest that the direction of my allegiance in this contest was the test of my fidelity to the oath of citizenship I took.

But patriotism, the healthy love of one's country, has nothing to do with international sports. International conflicts, yes. If we are war in Afghanistan, then a patriot will wish our troops well not only for their sakes, but also for the sake of the national interests we are defending, and he will do all that is required of him to help bring the war to a successful conclusion. Even were someone to disagree with the war, nonetheless American lives are at stake, and a patriot will seek the good of his country and countrymen in those circumstances.

International sports competitions like the Olympics, however, rarely if ever involve national interests. As for the athletes themselves, too many of them are no longer competing for their country at all. As gold medal snowboarder Shaun White stood on the podium while his national anthem played, he showed no reverence or national pride. He punched his fist in the air, still glorying in himself (there's a time and a place for that), and gestured to his friends. He seemed a poster boy for the teenaged rebel motto, "Sworn to fun; loyal to none." Many athletes clearly did not even know the words of the national anthem. I'm supposed to cheer for every American, even these, without distinction?

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Furthermore, the Olympics has become a setting for yet another highly commercialized form of entertainment. It's all about money (local tax revenues, merchandising profits, television ratings). Why else would we see snowboarding and beach volleyball introduced into the games? What does love of country have to do with matching advertisers to over-affluent, underachieving teenagers? If the Olympics were simply about national competition, the event would have two permanent locations: Switzerland for the winter games and Greece for the summer ones.

There have been times when great moral and political struggles have infused Olympic competition. Jesse Owens was not simply running for himself; he was running for a free country against the racist claims of the Nazi hosts. (He was also running for greater freedom for his own race back home, but that's a separate issue.) The medal count during the Cold War was an argument for the superiority of the Soviet system, or for its refutation. But today, American dominance at the medal ceremonies has more to do with wealth, technology, and leisure---which of course are related to our system of liberty---than they have to do, in most cases, with the athletes themselves.

Indeed, if a patriot is one who loves his country and seeks what is best for her, then he may withhold his cheers for an unworthy national team, and even direct his cheers elsewhere if he thinks his country's victory in that case would be bad for the national character. So why turn against the U.S. hockey team? Were they a bad team? Clearly not. I will admit that while I am quite alienated from the Canadian political project (yes, there's a project going on), I am still fond of the national sport, and that has something to do with it. It was also something larger, however.

We Americans seem to master everything we touch. But as far as I can tell, we have little interest in hockey. We have three big sports: baseball, basketball, and football. Here in metro New York, I don't see widespread excitement for the New York Rangers. Canadians, by contrast, do nothing but play hockey and wonder why Americans aren't socialists. They lose at politics but they should win at hockey. As for us, if things come too easily, the attitude of entitlement will weaken our character, both at home and abroad. Most NHL players are still Canadian, and almost all the league's best players were on the Canadian team. An Olympic gold for the United States in hockey would have encouraged a belief in manifest destiny that does not bring out the best in this exceptional people to whom, on firmly held principle, I have chosen to join myself.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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