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Olympic torch should shine on athletes not nations

By Michael Mullins - posted Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Guor Marial is a South Sudanese refugee who has won a battle to compete in the Olympic marathon as an independent athlete.

He cannot represent the United States - where he lives - because he is not a citizen. He says competing for Sudan would amount to betraying fellow South Sudanese who died for their freedom. He is unable to compete for South Sudan because it has not yet set up an Olympic committee.

He had to fight for the right to compete as an independent, yet attention to the individual's natural ability and performance - rather than nationality - is consistent with the spirit of both the ancient and modern Olympics.


Nationalism is the scourge of the modern Olympics. We've become more interested in the performances of nations than those of great athletes. Our eyes are on the medal tally because it proves we are better than Great Britain or some other nation. We slide too easily from speaking of 'how our athletes are doing' to 'how we are doing'.

The Australian Government is complicit. The feeling of national shame following our inability to win a single gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Games prompted the Government to establish the Australian Institute of Sport and put large amounts of public money into training athletes. It worked. We can once again count ourselves among the greatest sporting nations on earth, even if in truth we are one of the greatest per capita sports funding nations on earth.

Nationalism in the Olympics is just as strong among nations competing to host the event. Many of us recall with pride the words of IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch - 'The winner is Sydney' - when Australia won the rights to host the 2000 Games. And his declaration after the event that it had been 'the best Games ever'.

The most chilling and frequently quoted example of the manipulation of the Olympic Games for the purpose of promoting one nation's pretence to greatness was the 1936 'Nazi' Olympics in Berlin.

What are we to make of the many nations that lack the wealth to host the Olympics? Are they not great?

There are ways of curing the Olympics of nationalism. These might include discontinuing the playing of national anthems when medals are awarded, and discouraging the publication of medal tallies.


More radical would be the establishment of a fixed host city for the Olympic Games, such as Olympia in Greece. It would likely introduce more problems than it solves, but we might even conceive of Olympia as a city state like the Vatican, and the Olympic Movement as a body capable of standing up to nationalism. Guor Marial and other stateless athletes would be treated as equals.

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About the Author

Michael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street

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