“That’s pride fucking with you. Fuck pride. Pride only hurts. It never helps. You fight through that shit.”
– Marsellus Wallace, Pulp Fiction
We’re officially over halfway through the 2014 Winter Olympics. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are a daily flutter of activity about #SochiProblems, faces of outrage and medal counts. Many of us are living under the Olympic microscope, doing our part to pitch in with each share and re-tweet. In the era of short information bursts and shorter attention spans, there’s no doubt that we’ll forget everything in a week’s time.
And that’s totally fine with me. After all, I signed up to use these social networks — to befriend my fellow Canadians and follow the myriad news sources. I’m not annoyed about it because I have no reason to be. I opted into the madness; the jungle welcomes me.
Rather, as I get older, I start thinking about what it means to be Canadian and what it means to be patriotic in the context of athletic competition. To join in momentous occasion and celebrate a gold medal with my fellow countrymen and countrywomen, who care little about curling or hockey or slalom except for a certain two-week window of time that happens every four years.
That’s right, I said it. The reality is that we choose to spend our collective energy watching, following and discussing the Olympics not because we really care about it, but because it’s easy to give into peer pressure. We want the lowest common denominator way of feeling like we’re part of some greater cause — and it’s right there in front of us! How convenient. We talk about our country like zombies, because we’re conditioned to do nothing else. We’re doing the national equivalent of the bandwagoning selfie. And it’s time to stop.
When the 2010 Winter Olympics rolled into my home city of Vancouver, I witnessed the zombification firsthand. Vancouver was abuzz with visitors, events and festivities. And of course, alcohol. It was routine, actually — mill about, line up in front of Olympic Village tents, drink, watch the games, rinse and repeat.
I witnessed transformation. Everyone wore apparel to mark their allegiances. My neighbors were no longer just Jeff and Susan — they were Team Canada. My German coworker was Team Germany. Every conversation with a stranger evolved into: “Hey, I see you’re from country A, great job in sport B yesterday!” “Hey, thanks! Let’s have a beer!” At times, when one wanted to be cutely belligerent, it was some variation of: “We kicked your ass last night!” Which is all good because we could all use a good reason to consume alcohol and gather in crowds and cheer loudly at/with/around stuff we barely know about.
Here’s the thing that rubbed me the wrong way back then, and still rubs me the wrong way now: Why should I cheer for athletes who I don’t know, who play a sport I know nothing about, so that I can feel some kind of “pride” at my country for training these athletes and promoting them?
I am not taking anything away from these athletes and the daily sacrifices they make to perform at the highest levels of competition. I admire those who want something so bad that they will put in the work to get better at it everyday. While I’m sleeping like a baby, our national athletes are training hard, running uphill both ways, and fighting grizzly bears with one hand tied behind their backs to bring home the gold.
I also have friends who are personally connected to these athletes, and that’s awesome. When my friend tells me to root for Dick and Jane Athlete because he knows them and they’re chasing their dreams, you can bet your sweet ass that I’ll be hootin’ and hollerin’ in front of the TV. Besides, what kind of asshole roots against their friends? It’s downright unsporting.
There are so many great reasons to watch the Olympics, but national pride isn’t — shouldn’t — be one of them.
So here’s what I propose.
I say that we stop resorting to easy identification methods where we are somehow all magically connected due to being born/adopted/living in the same country. I propose that we celebrate the greatness of sport year-round, and carry the idea of sportsmanship into our lives all the time, rather than when it’s convenient to do so. I also propose that all of us can make our country proud by helping our neighbor down the street — we don’t need Olympic heroes for that. Last but not least, I propose that we stop worrying about just how many medals we have. Medal or not, let’s be grateful that these athletes are giving it everything they have. Win or lose, podium or dead last, they’re making all of us proud.
The Olympics are a celebration of sport. It’s gratifying to stage the narrative as “us versus them,” and it’s fun to bring on the drama, but it doesn’t need to be a national rah-rah affair. Life isn’t easy to explain. We have social and political issues to work through. It’s not just about how strong of an Olympic squad our country is fielding this year. Well, it can be, but the funding came from some operating budget. And when that budget is spent, what’s happening elsewhere in our respective cities and countries, what trade-offs are being made? Let’s converse about our governing parties and the daily injustices happening in our backyard — and preach awareness around that. If we can take a break from watching grown adults beat each other for some prize that we ultimately feel no connection to, then the world can be a slightly better place. Collective experience is wonderful — social networks are testament to that — and I’m optimistic that we can use it for valuable dialogue instead of misplaced nationalism.
Dear Olympics – I love you, and I want you to keep doing what you do. You’re compelling and easy on the eyes. If you want to give me some hilarious memes, great, I’ll laugh along with everyone else. But give me the best of you — your spirit of competition and real elation. Let me admire you for the right reasons, and I’ll tell my friends why I fell in love in the first place.
Who’s with me?