In the weeks leading up to the official start of the 2012 Games, the world’s Olympic teams were photographed, reported on, blogged about, critiqued, praised, and generally fussed over. This first bout of international attention was not directed at the athletes themselves or the amazing feats they perform, but at the outfits they would be wearing at the Opening Ceremony that took place last Friday.  The American team’s Ralph Lauren ensembles, consisting of blue sports jackets, white pants, and berets, received particularly poor reviews. The U.S. outfits were heavily criticized for being made in China, for being overly preppy, and even for being too French (because of the berets).

What the athletes wear as they enter the Olympic Stadium is a big deal because Olympians are national symbols and the Olympics are a venue for symbolic international competition. Under the surface of the Olympic Truce and feel good peace talk, flow strong undercurrents of exaggerated nationalism and international competition as highlighted by the various controversies that inevitably arise every Olympic Games. The history of the Olympics since its modern beginning in the 19th Century traces the history of international political conflict.

A simple glitch or a failure can become a national insult and an embarrassment, a country’s presence or non-presence at the Games themselves can serve as a symbolic means of protest, and the bodies of athletes can be used to demonstrate violence against a state.

Under the flag of an enemy

In one of the opening Olympic women’s soccer games last Wednesday between North Korea and Colombia, Olympic organizers mistakenly showed the South Korean flag on a big screen TV. North Korean players walked off the field and refused to go back on until an hour later when the mistake was corrected. Given the poor state of relations between the countries, the mistake was viewed as highly insulting by players and fans. Official apologies were issued and the Korean team won the match 2-0, but the episode will go down in Olympic history as a “diplomatic incident.

North Korea is no stranger to Olympic controversies. The country was banned from the games in 1968 and boycotted the 1988 Games hosted by South Korea. Brace yourselves for the meeting of North and South Korea athletes in table tennis in August.

Refusing to participate

Speaking of boycotts, they have been a staple of past Olympic Games. The 1956 summer Games in Melbourne, Australia were boycotted by 7 countries. Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon refused to participate to protest Israel’s invasion of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands boycotted the Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The 1976 Games in Montreal, Canada were boycotted by 20 countries, mostly from Africa, because the IOC refused to ban New Zealand from the Games. New Zealand had played rugby against South Africa, a pariah for its racial policies.

60 countries boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Among those who refused to participate were historically competitive teams from the U.S., West Germany, Japan, and Canada.  In reprisal, the Soviet Union and 16 other communist countries boycotted the 1984 games in Los Angeles, claiming that security was not strong enough.

Deadly games

The site of one of the most symbolic actions taken at an Olympic Games was Munich in 1972 when 11 members of the Israeli team were killed by a Palestinian extremist group.

The last time the Games were held in Germany prior to 1972 was in 1936 at the height of Hitler’s reign. In 1972 Germany had hoped that the Games would provide an opportunity to “erase” the memory of the “Nazi Olympics.” Organizers went as far as to label the games the “smiling games” and the set of poor decisions by the German government during the hostage situation demonstrated their reluctance to admit that the Games in Munich would go down in history as a site of further atrocity.

Munich was an example of Olympic national symbolism taken to the extreme. The actions of the group had little to do with the Athletes themselves. Years later in the documentary One Day in September, one of the surviving Palestinian extremists asserted: “I am proud of what I did at Munich because it helped the Palestinian cause enormously. Before Munich the world had no idea about our struggle, but on that day the name of Palestine was repeated all over the world.”

Conclusion

As the above examples show, the Olympic Games have as strong a tendency to encourage separation and alienation as bring people together. Where polarization is already in place, this tendency is even stronger.

Watching the opening ceremonies I was struck by the outfits of two teams in particular, Jamaica and the U.S. Though the Jamaican and American uniforms are different as Kingston and Cambridge, they both integrate military-inspired elements (for which they have not been widely criticized). Despite under-researched talk show commentary, the U.S. team berets were inspired by the hat’s historic use in the U.S. Army.  And the army green shirts of the Jamaican team are called the “Buffalo soldier button downs” and athletes have the option of wearing a military style jacket or sweater.

Designers know that they are dressing athletes for war, not on the battlefield, but on the track and field and in the pool. Uniforms, flags, performance, and even the very presence of teams are political statements and tests of national pride and ability, as George Orwell once put it:

On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.

-        George Orwell, December 1945

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