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Two cheers for the Olympics

By Richard Mulgan - posted Friday, 15 August 2008

Not everyone will be watching the Olympics. Some people find all forms of sport intensely boring. Others, particularly among the educated elites, are repelled by the strident nationalism associated with Olympic medal counts and mutter about “bread and circuses”. But competitions like the Olympics serve a useful function. All countries need a sense of shared identity, and sporting competitions are one of the least harmful means of making us feel more united as citizens.
Democratic government operates on consent. While governments retain the legal power to coerce us, most of us willingly cooperate in paying our taxes and generally abiding by the many laws that governments impose on us.

If we reflect on the reasons why we consent so freely, we can point to the obvious personal advantages of living in a peaceful and reasonably fair society. However, self-interest only gets us part of the way in learning to accept the demands that governments place on us.

We also need to value the benefits that go to others as well as ourselves. Single people need to accept the tax-breaks given to parents. Those in secure jobs are asked to subsidise assistance to the unemployed. Unless we can feel genuine sympathy for fellow-citizens in need, we will start withdrawing our political consent from the system of government that supports them. "Fraternity", the sense of community and social solidarity, is therefore just as important as the other more popular members of the revolutionary troika, "liberty" and "equality".


Although this political sympathy can extend to many millions of people, it is still exclusive as it applies only to fellow citizens living in the same country under the same government. We may feel a general sympathy to all human beings and endorse generous policies of overseas aid, but we accept stronger obligations towards fellow Australians than we do to citizens of other countries. The plight of Aboriginal communities shocks us much more, and places much stronger demands on us, than do similar conditions in Africa.

Some idealists reject the apparent insularity and selfishness of putting one's own compatriots first. They adopt a more cosmopolitan stance whereby we are all citizens of the world and owe the same duty to everyone, regardless of our particular country or nationality. But such extreme altruism appears to go against the grain of human experience. We all give priority to what is closest to us, to family first, then locality, then country and then humanity as whole.

Moreover, as long as nation states remain the world's key legal and governance structures, shared membership of such states will continue to provide the main basis for political solidarity and public policy. Cosmopolitans may deplore the fact that we have more sympathy for fellow Australians than for non-Australians, but the more pressing imperative is that we continue to feel a sense of solidarity with all fellow-citizens and do not fall back entirely on more localised communities; such as individual families or ethnic groups.

Indeed, one could argue many current ideologies have tended to undermine the value of shared citizenship. Liberal individualism concentrates on individuals and their immediate families only. Multiculturalism finds social value solely in shared ethnic identity. Both alternatives reduce the political community to an abstract legal framework that is insufficient to sustain its viability.

How, then, do we help to cement a sense of Australian identity? The question clearly exercised  those responsible for the recent citizenship test. There are no easy answers. Many factors contribute - a shared history and common identification with unique Australian experiences.

War in a just cause has always been the surest  method of binding citizens together. It is no accident that major expansion of government social programs in the twentieth country followed the shared suffering in two world wars. But mass warfare is now out of fashion. Small boutique engagements with few casualties have little social impact.


Ethnic solidarity, as in Scandinavia and Japan, also does the trick. But it is not open to a migrant society with an indigenous population, such as Australia.

Pride in the achievements of individual Australians, such as "our’" Nicole's Oscar or "our" Peter Doherty’s Nobel prize, can be turned to national advantage. But such people are mainly performing for themselves not for Australia. For the difference, just ask the tennis players who compete as individuals through the year but jump at the chance of "playing for Australia" in Davis Cup or the Olympics. For national pride, nothing can match national sporting competition, complete with flags and national anthems.

So, by all means, turn off the radio and television, and catch up on your novel reading. But do not write off the Olympics off as a total waste of public money.

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First published in The Canberra Times  9 August 2008

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About the Author

Richard Mulgan is author of Holding Power to Account (Palgrave Macmillan 2003) and a former professor in the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the ANU.

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