Nationalism and the Olympics

A story on NPR this morning got me thinking about nationalism.  Morning Edition aired an interview with Miles Hoffman about the use of national anthems at the Olympics.  The first national anthem was the use of “God Save the King” by the British (Americans would better know the tune as “My Country Tis of Thee”) in 1745.  The story also included clips from the Chinese, French, Australian, and German anthems (all of which are available for a quick listen on the NPR site).

Because nationalism has had such a dramatic impact on the modern world, we often forget that the idea of “nation” is a relatively recent construct.  We usually credit France with the first use of the idea of nationhood—the French Republic’s creed of “liberty, equality, fraternity” provided a common sense of identity that Napoleon used to encourage citizens to support and join the French army.

Sociologist Anthony Smith argues that nations generally share a number of common characteristics that differentiate them from other nations.  These may include a fixed homeland (current or historical), a shared sense of history and struggle, a common set of beliefs—especially religious beliefs—a common language, and a common set of customs.  Benedict Anderson argues that this common identity provides the basis for a shared sense of community among members of a nation—a concept he calls the “imagined community”.

So, as you watch the Olympic Games on television over next couple of weeks, think about the reason you root for the national athletes of your home country.  It provides a peaceful way to feel pride in the accomplishments of your national athletes and may just help to illustrate Anderson’s idea of imagined communities.

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