Patriot Games: Watching the Olympics in a New Country

For the last month or so, watching the Olympics and thinking more and more about life in a new country, I’ve found myself contemplating loyalty to country and differences between patriotism and nationalism.

When you grow up in America watching the Olympics every four years, it’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of pride and near jingoistic frenzy of “winning” and seeing your countrymen lauded as “the best in the world”.  It’s all too easy to think, “That could be me one day”. Then, as we get older, our heroes are tarnished by claims of doping, cheating, and scandal.  But, somehow, when the axe falls it’s always on the individual.  As Americans, I think we tend to latch onto whatever bits of victory waft in our direction and inflate them beyond all reason, using them as an excuse to proclaim the greatness of our country.  But when greatness eludes us, we rarely take that logical next step and examine our shortcomings.

As an American living in Dublin during this summer’s London Olympics, my loyalties were torn. I found myself rooting for Irish boxing phenom Katie Taylor.  It had less to do with Katie than excitement for Ireland itself.  In a country that seems to delight in slagging on itself, it was fascinating to watch the excitement build behind this one small woman from a quiet Dublin suburb. But the most curious insight came in the midst of Katie’s gold medal bout. A niggling doubt arose.  Rather than being concerned for Katie, I found myself concerned for the Irish psyche.  “Oh God, what if she loses? Ireland will be devastated.”

Then, I found myself wondering if my excitement for Katie Taylor, and my concern for Ireland’s fragile psyche, might be some sort of patriotic reflex for my new country.  Was I capable of rooting for an Irish athlete without proclaiming Ireland’s overall greatness? Fortunately, I never got the sense that she, her coach/father, or the Irish people were strutting about Irish greatness (except in the ring).  The jingoistic reflex seems to be some sort of mass consciousness thing that requirs the input of millions, and the assistance of a complicit media.  I just didn’t feel it in the same way as I did in the U.S.

Fortunately, Katie won and my fears never came to pass.  But I realized later that, as excited as the Irish all seemed to be, the achievement was Katie’s alone. We were merely proud of her. Katie’s gold was one of just a few medals won by Ireland in the 2012 London Olympics.  Each was special and prized, but seemingly not for patriotic/nationalistic reasons.

As I watched the Olympics on the BBC, it struck me that the commentators were decidedly supportive of Great Britain, but their coverage was evenhanded and comprehensive in a way that I had not seen before.  At this same time, I received scathing reports (from the States) of NBC’s willfully negligent, and openly partisan coverage.  All of this got me thinking about the difference between healthy pride in country, and overzealous promotion of a national agenda.

The Free Miriam-Webster Dictionary (online) defines both patriotism and nationalism as loyalty/love and devotion to a country.  But the dictionary goes on to say that nationalism presses the point further by “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups”.

That pretty much sums it up for me.  Pride in one’s country is all well and good, but making that pride contingent upon the devaluation of others seems a hollow pursuit. I wasn’t sure how I would feel after the Olympics.  I found myself proud to be an American. We, and our country, have done, and continue to do, many good things.  Yet I’m happy to be living in Ireland, a country that more and more seems to reflect my values.

While I still have pride in America, it’s been an eye opening experience living in a small, relatively new country that is still coming to terms with its sense of national identity. Ireland is a country with some serious self-esteem and identity issues, but it knows what it’s not.  It’s not a superpower, and, as such, doesn’t feel a need to prove itself. There’s a quiet confidence in that.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

Seeing the Sights

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
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10 Responses to Patriot Games: Watching the Olympics in a New Country

  1. Walt Kleinedler says:

    Have enjoyed your blog and your thoughtful words from the beginning. This one is particularly apt. Keep up the good work.

  2. Natasha says:

    I have really enjoyed reading your blog in the past and particularly enjoyed this one. Having recently returned from California I found the American attitude to the Olympics to be a strange one. I was quite disappointed to not be in Ireland to be able to share in Katie’s triumph and to cheer on all our athletes, I was even more disappointed when I couldn’t view any coverage of her fight or any sport where an American was not the main focus. Considering it was the first year with Women’s boxing being an Olympic event and considering how heavily tipped Katie was going into the event it was amazing that there was no mention of her on the US sports channels. We had to watch her final fight on line while the sports channels interviewed a celebrity about their view on the Olympics!
    I found it quite amazing that the coverage in general was so poor. There seemed to be an emphasis on the US gymnastic team, pentathalon, swimming and track stars but other than that there was no coverage or even news reports relating to any other countries or medal hauls.
    I’m not sure if it’s due to the fact that we are such a small country with few ahtletes taking part in the Olympics that we provide such rounded coverage of the whole event (although I do believe the BBC etc are great at overall coverage too) but the coverage in the US was so completely biased that you’d be hard pressed to know the name of any other athlete or believe that there was any sporting event that the US did not win in.
    I found myself delighted that we, as such a small country, had such pride in all of those competing as part of the national team and most Irish people could probably name a lot of our national team whereas in the US, despite having such a strong representation of athletes I doubt many Americans were aware of who was on their national team or possibly that the Olypics were even taking place.
    It’s a terrible thing to take the success of your country for granted as the hard work and training those athletes put in day after day deserves respect and recognition from the countrymen they represent – whichever it might be and however they might perform.

  3. Colm says:

    I only found your blog recently and have spent a few minutes each day on the DART home reading the back issues. I enjoy your observations and your writing style. I think most Irish people are interested in the way others see them, for good and bad. Please continue with your accounts of Dublin life as I look forward to your next installment.

  4. Thanks for your straightforward and insightful post. An American with Irish roots, I’ve spent much time in Ireland for both business and personal visits, and each time I’m there I feel relieved to be free of the US-centric media, and wish that we could find our footing as a nation among many, rather then the super-power role we put on. You are fortunate to have this experience of living in a sane country. Keep writing – I enjoy your posts. And it helps me look forward to the next time I land in Dublin!

  5. patoshea says:

    “Oh God, what if she loses? Ireland will be devastated.”

    We wouldn’t have be devastated at all. Remember Ireland losing miserably against Spain a few months ago at the UEFA? Let’s sing the Fields of Athenry, so! We aren’t known to be sore losers.

    By the way, Katie’s from Bray, Co. Wicklow, not a “quiet Dublin suburb”. 🙂

    Beir Bua

    • Pat,
      Thanks for writing in.
      You’re right the Irish are not sore losers. That’s why I specifically chose the word “devastated” and not “angry” or “furious”. And, apologies if I there is some confusion on the Bray issue. I know she’s from Bray. As it’s on the DART, I still consider it to be a distant Dublin commuter suburb.

  6. Darragh says:

    Great wee blog. Enjoyed reading this one and was delighted to be in Ireland for the Olympics and watching full live coverage. As a poster above said, we find it interesting when someone observes us and gives intelligent insights whether that be positive or negative. I always loved Robert Anton Wilson’s comments on us. He lived there for quite some time. Keep up the good work
    An Donegal man in Colorado

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