Country? What’s a Country?

February 15, 2010

Gold for Bilodeau (centre)

As we watch the Vancouver Olympics, we are focused by the media on the standings by country.  To count each country’s medals.  But there are only a few sports that are really team events: hockey, team pursuit speed skating among them.  What is this drive to nationalism – latent tribalism?

But as you start scraping the surface you see that country is a flexible term.  While all of Canada was elated to see Alex Bilodeau win gold, he beat Dale Begg-Smith.  Begg-Smith was born in the town where the competition was staged, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, but was competing for Australia.  Why?  For political and personal reasons.

So would we have been as happy celebrating Begg-Smith winning gold — a Canadian native under the Australian flag?  Probably not.

But Begg-Smith is hardly alone.  Later the same day we watched world pair skating champions, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.  Savchenko previously skated representing the Ukraine, her country of birth.  Szolkowy could also skate for Tanzania if he wanted and they had a team.

Or Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov who skate for Russia.  Kavaguti (Kawaguchi) previously skated for Japan.  We could go on.

The same is true for many other competitors in these Olympics and the same is true of the summer games where athletes born in one country were competing for others.

Why not?

If we believe that the Olympics promote brotherhood and good well, then what do we care for country?  Professional athletes are not stay at home, either for city or country or even continent.  They go where the money is.

For Olympic sports, athletes go where the opportunity is.  Like all of us seeking work and opportunities to enrich our lives, for school, or work, or life.

A world where people move around is a better world.  We learn about other people and find out that they are pretty much like us, but they do things differently.

The rub of cultures brings invention that makes everyone’s lives better.  Who could get by in North America without tacos or pizza or pho?  Or take spaghetti – noodles from China, tomatoes from South America collide in Italy and, dare I say, voilà!

While it might be a long trip from a gold medal to a plate of pasta, it is interchange of cultures that drives innovation and competition.

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