Dumb nationalism

I don’t understand the endless obsession of Olympic commentators and event organizers with the countries competitors come from: parading in national costumes at the opening, keeping score by country on the front web page of the NY Times, Canadian whining about not winning enough medals, event winners swanning around waving their flags.  It’s pointlessly nationalistic, but it’s also stupid: counting, much less comparing or “scoring” Olympic medal numbers per country, is like obsessing over a one-heat race among cheetahs, walruses, hares, tortoises, and trees.

Here are the numbers of medals per million population of the top eight medal winners so far:Given that Canada has a little more than a tenth the population of the US, they’re “beating” us three to one by any reasonable measure; given that Americans mostly live where it’s much less wintry than any of Canada, so what? Given that Austria and Norway are rich, mountainous, and cold, why wouldn’t they rack up lots of wins at a winter sports party?  Enough already; lets let the kids compete and have fun, and not coopt them as cannon fodder in a silly and jingoistic PR battle.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

13 thoughts on “Dumb nationalism”

  1. I don't know, I think it's a fairly harmless outlet for some patriotic pride, in what by any measure must be considered a sporting and friendly environment. I don't think you could make the case that it's harmful or that it passes up some kind of meaningful opportunity to bring people together.

    Your point about counting medals in absolute terms instead of relative to population or wealth is well taken, though.

  2. At least it's dumb nationalism that doesn't involve the really stupid stuff dumb nationalism can lead to, like armies crossing borders, or commerce NOT crossing borders. I personally despise organized sports, but I do appreciate that they're better than almost every other expression of dumb nationalism.

  3. Well, in northern New England, we don't see these medals as American. Especially in the Winter Olympics, we count by region of the US, and on a per capita basis, northern New England isn't doing too badly. GO NNE!

  4. It's especially unjustified when you realize how many athletes have "chosen" their nationality in order to maximize their chances in the sport. Not the majority, by any means, because the majority don't have the choice, but from the Japanese turned Russian pairs skater, to Tanith Belbin (born in Ontario) to the American turned Canadian skier, to the TWIN brothers who compete for different countries in ski jumping (Norway and Switzerland) — and not even counting the successful American skaters nearly all of whom are coached by Russians — it just seems kind of silly.

  5. Actually, that's the whole point of the modern Olympics, which its founder, Pierre de Coubertin, saw as a way for nations to compete peacefully on the playing-field, as an alternative to competition on the battlefield.

  6. In a prior opinion you stated:

    "Cal won its last two games against good teams, one close and today’s running away, so I have to retract the snarky aside about Tedford’s record in this post. We will have a winning season, probably win our last game as well, and finish in the upper division of the conference. The team recovered from […]"

    Your comment regarding Cal football leads me to believe you were able find a point in crowing about Cal football; Unless you put on the pads and helmet yourself, it is hard to understand the distinction you are able to make in cheering for Cal but not for country; or why isn't talking up Cal football "also stupid?"

  7. Great post. While we're at it, what's with all the meaningless city loyalty in professional sports? Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, etc. How ridiculous. And they say that the Yankees were the "winners" last year with 4 games to Phillies' 2 games. Yet, New York has 19.4 million people, while Philadelphia only has 1.4 million. Looks to me like Philadelphia won that one! Better re-print those T-Shirts.

    And what about little league? What's all this about cheering for your kids over other peoples' kids? And if you have six kids, your family shouldn't get as much credit for a kid's home run as someone who only has a single child.

  8. Pete Guither- As a New Yorker of The Bronx persuasion, I would like to point out that with all due respect, you have overstated our population by some 11 million, unless of course you are referring to the metropolitan statistical area, in which case the relevant statistic for Philly would be just under 6 million. In any event, our Yankees still won the "World" series. So there!!

  9. Countries are so twentieth century… it's all about whether you belong to a class with the money and education and connections to plant yourself where you can bloom, or you're stuck where your parents planted their seeds. Yes, it matters where that place might be — the US is better than, for instance, Pakistan, but specific countries have nothing to do with those who succeed anymore.

  10. In the aftermath of the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games here in Vancouver, there is much talk about a renewed Canadian patriotism. Spontaneous bursts of O Canada in the streets, red wearing and flag waving were staples of the Games. Now that they are over, where does it leave us?

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