History Slam Episode 112: Use and Abuse of Patriotism in Sports

By Sean Graham

The 2018 Paralympic Games came to a close on Sunday, thus completing another Olympic cycle. The next major international sporting event comes this summer when Russia hosts the FIFA World Cup. And right now, March Madness, one of the most bet-upon sporting events on the calendar, has the NCAA in the spotlight.

What’s interesting about these events is that, during the competitions, the athletes are at the forefront of the media attention. The stories that emerged from Pyeongchang over the past month have been remarkable. From Scott Moir and Tessa VIrtue’s triumph to the gut-wrenching semi-final loss of the Canadian wheelchair curling team, these sporting events are wrought with emotion. From the elation of winning to the pain of losing, people from around the world wave their countries’ flags in support of their athletes – and in the NCAA case, people root for their alma mater.

All the while, companies capitalize on the emotional attachment to the events to try to sell us stuff. The Olympics, World Cup, and March Madness all feature targeted ads based off our patriotism (most professional and collegiate teams refer to themselves as ‘nations’) while at the same time highlighting the amazing performances of the athletes.

What gets left out, however, is the backdrop against which these events take place. The International Olympic Committee has been known to have executives made outlandish demands of host committees while at the same time demonstrating a remarkable level of disinterest in the host cities’ financial state, so much so that they are having difficulty finding places that want to host the Games. FIFA has had plenty of examples of corruption and bribery, particularly when it comes to the next two World Cups. As for the NCAA, the highest paid employee in 39 of the 50 states is a men’s basketball or football coach. The players, however, don’t get paid and, in a lot of cases, are subject to tougher restrictions on movement and outside financial opportunities than the adults who are, allegedly, teaching them about responsibility.

But these things don’t get the same attention or scrutiny as the games and results. I’ve often wondered if that’s because these sports so effectively capitalize on patriotism to draw us in. By doing so, we are not watching somebody else. Instead, we are included in the action, which is why so many people talk about how many medals ‘we’ won when referring to their home country. By creating an environment in which the audience has a vested interest, it becomes much easier, if not a necessity, to ignore the seedy underside of these events.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with co-host of the Game of Stones Podcast Scott Graham about the use and abuse of patriotism in sport. We talk about the negative side of international organizations, whether we can separate the events from the organizers, and if these systems are based on exploitation. We also debate the benefits of international sports and how to best consume these events.

Sean Graham is an editor with Activehistory.ca and host/producer of the History Slam.

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