With the U.S. team crossing over the 1,000th gold medal mark for U.S. Olympic sports since the start of the modern games 120 years ago, even some of this year’s participants are amazed by how well the nation’s athletes have consistently performed.
“It really makes me think about all the generations of Olympic teams and athletes I watched and the inspiration that I have had,” swimmer Dana Vollmer said. “We’re here getting that 1,000th medal for the U.S. and it seems absolutely incredible.
Many countries take pride in celebrating their athletes’ prowess at the games, a semi-annual event that reignites a competitiveness otherwise shunned in today’s come-together world. Fiji’s rugby team, for instance, won gold this past week, the first time the country has medaled in the Olympics ever. The prime minister, who attended the games in Rio, ordered a national holiday in honor of the feat.
For the athletes at the games, demonstrating their national pride can make them heroes back home, just as not displaying all the ritualistic flourishes of nationalism can cause problems. American gymnast Gabby Douglas had to issue an apology for forgetting to put her hand on her heart during the U.S. national anthem at the medal ceremony. The mistake only temporarily clouded the years of training for the moment that got her and her teammates to the top of the podium.
For those of us back home, exerting one’s national pride, especially during a divisive presidential election year, is cathartic. Nationalism, after all, doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
An elite globalist may scoff at the arbitrariness of national borders and style himself ‘a citizen of the world,’ as President Obama described himself before a massive crowd in Berlin in 2008. But most people don’t think of themselves that way. Nation-states inspire loyalties in a way the United Nations or the European Union have failed to do.
Nationalism, properly understood, can be a positive force, welding otherwise disparate people together to build a decent society, secure a competent government, and rally to defend themselves against attack. Over the course of history each nation has developed its own particular culture, its own manners and mores, its own rules written and unspoken.
An intelligent nationalist can respect the strengths of other nationalisms, while preferring his own, just as an Olympics fan can appreciate the superb performance of athletes from other countries even while keeping an eye on the scoreboard showing the number of medals each country has won.
What makes the U.S. form of nationalism particularly admirable is no doubt the “welding” of “disparate people” into a decent society. On the world stage, the most striking aspect about the U.S. Olympic team is that its athletes represent just one nation. Its binding similarity is its diversity. The team is composed of people of widely varying ethnicities, races, economic backgrounds, and even ages. The U.S. Olympic team boasts Americans born in other countries as well as Americans born in the U.S. And regardless of their life circumstances, their individual stories — not just their collective athletic performance — make them champions back home.
That every American born or bred here is able to pursue his happiness and achieve a dream — for himself and on behalf of the U.S. — is no small reason to celebrate American nationalism.
Read more from Michael Barone about how nationalism is not necessarily a bad thing.