Stateless Athletes

AT last, the Olympic ideal! Athletes without a flag, competing not for nationalistic glory but just for the love of their sport. How grand, how noble, how ... sad.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the athletes who comprise what would have been the Soviet team at the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, have been left without an integral homeland. Thus, they wear no national emblems on their uniforms, and in medal ceremonies the Olympic flag and anthem are substituted for the corresponding symbols of nationhood. The collection of athletes, who come from a number of the former Soviet republics, is called simply the Unified Team.

Since virtually the beginning of the modern Olympic games, visionaries have wished that nationalism could be stripped away from international sports competition. They note that one of the purposes of such competition, and especially the Olympics, is to enhance international friendship and understanding; whereas all too often the games have become a forum for international rivalry.

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Certainly during the cold war, nationalism infected international sports in many regrettable ways. Medal counts between the United States and the Soviet Union were treated as a kind of referendum on rival political and economic systems. Political boycotts - the US boycott of the Moscow summer games in 1980, the USSR's retaliatory boycott of the Los Angeles games in 1984, and the long embargo against South African competitors - deprived many young men and women of their chance to match skills against the world's best athletes. And recent disclosures about the extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs by East German athletes shows just how pernicious the politicizing of sport can be.

And yet, for all that, it has tugged on the heartstrings to watch the Unified athletes perform in Albertville as, in effect, unrooted people. Who could marvel at the skill and artistry of athletes like Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev in their gold medal pairs-skating performance and not be saddened that, as they stood on the awards stand, they were honored with bland, stateless symbols rather than with indicia of the land and culture that nurtured them?

The dark side of nationalism is emerging as a dangerous force in the post-cold-war world. It needs to be guarded against. But nationalism doesn't have to be destructive. As a natural expression of love for and pride in the place of one's birth or acculturation, nationalism can also be a unifying and stabilizing force.

The Unified Team gives little support to the notion that the world would be bettered by athletes without passports.

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