Sports and Nations

18 06 2010

I watched Mexico beat France at Cleo’s on Chicago Ave, sitting in the big open doors that give out onto the street. At the final whistle, hoots broke out up and down the street, accented by a few choice celebrations in Spanish. I asked my buddy Alberto, who is Mexican-American, about how strong Mexican nationalism was–say, as compared to loyalty to your region or town (or indigeneity)–in Mexico.

I was surprised to learn that pride in being Mexican, as opposed to say, Michoacan, is very strong all over Mexico, including among the rural poor, particularly around athletics.

It’s surprising because the idea of a “Mexican nation” (as opposed to a “Mexican country” which has no personal identity component) is fairly recent–less than two hundred years old–and was originally championed by the European-descended metropolitan professional classes. And also, Mexico the country was a fabrication of European settlers.

The symbols of Mexico–at parades, at sporting events, in civic culture–are often lifted from Mayan and Aztec civilization. Yet their intellectual and political elites, even their professional athletes, are primarily descendants of Europeans. That rural people more closely descended from indigenous groups would so fervently buy in to a construction of Europeans settlers–complete with the somewhat contradictory pre-Columbian symbolism–is a little counter-intuitive.

But that’s the thing about nationalism; the concept of a nationalism wrapped up in national identity is fairly new and based on intellectual and legal constructs, rather than anything tangible or historical. And in most parts of the world, those constructs were a result of European commercial and imperial activities. Being a, say, Zimbabwean nationalist takes as a settled question the reality of a “nation” of Zimbabwe. Just as often in those places, the European-fabricated nation-state is in peril because free of the bonds of imperial administration, more “natural” in-groups–tribes, religious sects, clans, etc.–begin to buck against the coercive power of the state.

Sports is not incidental to all this. Almost every major nationalist movement going back to the mid-nineteenth century included as a critical early component youth athletic clubs. Even in the US, urban political machines relied on athletic clubs to organize competing ethnic groups (as a famous example consider the Hamburg Club in Chicago). Athletic clubs were attractive to nationalist intellectuals because they could bring in the less politically conscious working class youths under uncontroversial auspices, inculcate an us versus them ethos and create reliable, tested social networks. Athletic Clubs (and to a different degree cultural or drama clubs) were also useful for organizing students, who were usually on their own for the first time, probably in a strange place, and in need of local support networks.

“Nations” were built to no insignificant degree by athletics. The great Italian–or “Italian”–risorganimento leader Massimo d’Azeglio said, L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani. Or, “We’ve made Italy; now we have to make Italians.” The political and professional elites who theorized the nation and led political revolts to create them typically found themselves with huge masses of unorganized people only vaguely aware of the existence of some greater group they belonged to outside of their parochial community. At the time of the French Revolution, less than half the population spoke French; Welsh nationalism briefly resurged after the group had already died out for practical purposes.

The Jet Li movie Fearless, a highly-stylized retelling of the true story of Huo Yuanjia, who (with the support of early Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-Sen) founded a chain of Chinese athletic clubs, tells a familiar national-identity-building story. Huo was frustrated with the breakdown of traditional Chinese village and city life in the era of imperialist spheres of influence (late 19th early 20th century). The Wu Chin schools he founded were meant to inculcate Chinese men with discipline and protect Chinese “culture” institutionally. It is relevant that Sun brought the idea of nationalism back to China after travels in the US (using Abraham Lincoln as the intellectual guide for his nationalist writings), since US nationalism after the Civil War was markedly different from the civic nationalism in the antebellum era.

In the movie, Huo decides to reinvigorate Chinese “pride” by taking on the imperialists’ best fighters in a tournament so ethnically stereotyped Punch-Out! got a writing credit.

Jet Li versus imperialism. Odds on Jet Li.

Sport has not only been a useful crutch for nationalism, but they may be interdependent. The countries that compete at a high level in any given sport are (typically) the nations with a high level of national organization for the sport. Youth leagues, national governing bodies for standardization and to organize competitions, and funding to support the development of skill. Large nations that lack highly-organized, large scale bodies for a particular sport will not perform well at that sport.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise then that the International Olympic Committee is stuffed with aristocrats and former fascists.

It is one of the quirks of human society that the same methods that built nation states out of competing parochial communities (think France, Germany, the United States, Yugoslavia) are also used to tear them apart; (think the entire Third World, Yugoslavia) and in both cases, the proto-combat and competitive forms of athletics have been critical to connecting intellectual models to the masses of people.

You’ll also be glad to know that the national heroes of Mexico who have streets named after them in nearly every town–Los Niños Héroes–killed themselves rather than surrender to the pig-dog Americans during the Mexican-American War. So there’s that.


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