If the disqualification of a large part of the Russian Olympic team had less to do with politics than with the country's state-sponsored doping system, plenty of people both inside and outside Russia would like to turn the resulting tension into a jingoistic grudge match between Russia and the West.
Russian state television started on it during the opening ceremony. "In 2001, El Salvador fell into total dependence from the U.S., abolishing the national currency, the colon," commentator Anna Dmitrieva intoned as she watched the Salvadorean team march by, waving flags. "Nor does El Salvador have any precious Olympic medals."
There was probably nothing political about swimmer Lilly King's open dislike of her Russian competitor Yulia Yefimova: King wants all athletes who have ever been caught using forbidden substances to be banned from the Olympics, and that includes her teammate, runner Justin Gatlin, who, like Yefimova, has served a drug-related disqualification. Yet after King's defiant win, Russians and Americans alike rushed to politicize the conflict.
"I don’t really understand the foreign competitors," Yefimova said. "All athletes should be above politics, but they just watch TV and believe everything they read. I always thought the cold war was long in the past. Why start it again, by using sport?"
U.S. fans, for their part, crowed with pleasure on the social networks, making comments such as "The Olympics are more fun when we have beef with the Russians" and comparing King's triumph with Rocky Balboa's victory over Ivan Drago. "It’s a victory for American good over Russian evil," The Washington Post characterized, in an oped piece that went on to condemn the misplaced, aggressive patriotism. "King and Efimova are flat characters in an Olympic tale that borders on jingoism."
Russians are great at holding generalized grudges, but the geopolitical approach to commenting on the Olympics isn't limited to them. On Germany's public ARD channel, commentator Tom Bartels, known to some as "Black, Red and Gold Tommy," in notorious for seeking a German angle in anything he sees.
Commentators on NBC in the U.S. have been accused of sexism on rather flimsy grounds, but rarely of overzealous patriotism -- and the station is as guilty of it as it was in 2012. This year, NBC dwelled on the victorious U.S. women's gymnastics team, but dropped the men's team from prime time because they weren't expected to win a medal for the country. Nationalism and patriotism have always been part of the Olympics. Pierre de Coubertin, who started the modern tradition of the games, was motivated in part by a desire to raise the spirits and improve the combat readiness of young French men, demoralized by their country's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.
"Clothed in the rhetoric of international cosmopolitanism like the world’s fairs on which the Baron modelled much of the initial Olympic structure, the games, like world’s fairs, have historically provided opportunities for rabid displays of national chauvinism," Mark Dyreson wrote in his book about the U.S. at the Olympics. "The measurement of nations, as de Coubertin himself understood, resides at the center of the Olympic movement." The U.S., he continued, "has used the Olympic games to concoct national mythologies, shape national memories, fashion ethnic identities, encode racial typologies and Americanize global processes. Since 1896 Americans have understood the Olympics as a place to debate and celebrate the meanings of nationhood."
It's not the U.S. alone, though. During the 2012 Olympics, which gave a huge boost to the U.K.'s soft power, the rock singer Morrissey wrote a letter to his fans, saying, "I am unable to watch the Olympics due to the blustering jingoism that drenches the event. Has England ever been quite so foul with patriotism?"
The TV channels that win the rights to show the Olympics, whether public or private, pander to audience nationalism and perpetuate it by concentrating on events that feature home-grown athletes. It's difficult to follow the British team if you're in Germany or the Russian one in the U.S. -- and it's even more difficult to see, in real time, the events where a sporting miracle is happening or expected to happen unless the home nation's athletes are involved.
The rest of the media add fuel to the fire by incessantly toting up the medals by country. Is it any wonder then that a dispute over doping turns into a Rocky-style battle between Russia and the U.S.?
It's probably naive to demand change to a tradition as old as the Olympics themselves, but then Olympic sports have evolved a lot in recent decades. Today's intolerance for doping and for objectification are both relatively new. Why not apply them to the jingoistic threads too? A swimmer or long jumper represents herself and her coaching team as much as her country. Celebrating human achievement, regardless of nationality, makes more sense in a globalized world than turning an archery competition or a 100-meter race into a proxy war between countries.
While many athletes feel the highest honor is to represent their country in their sport, that doesn't change the fact that the goal of high achievement sports is ultimately to set records and celebrate individual mastery. There ought to be rules for TV companies requiring equal coverage for individual events (they can do whatever they want with team ones). There is even a good argument for removing the national flags from individual competition -- allowing the athletes to wear sponsored kit instead of the team kit -- so that only team events count in the final medals tally.
Nationalism won't disappear if broadcasters embrace the spirit of the games a bit more or the competition rules are changed to downplay the national element to some events, but the focus of the Olympics will at least be returned to its rightful place, on the feats of human athletic attainment, regardless of the flag. And it will be harder to misconstrue a contest like that of King and Yefimova in terms of geopolitics.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
The opinion expressed is his.