Friday, March 5, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Politics of Sports Nationalism

A photo taken by me at a Toronto bar, seconds after Canada won 
gold in Olympic mens hockey. 

A tale of two finals.  It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.  Apologies for the brief absence yada yada yada but it took me a week to mentally process last Sunday's double header: Aston Villa putting in a drab, 2-1 non-event in the Carling Cup final, and the Canadian and US Olympic mens hockey teams putting on one of the best sporting spectacles I have seen in ages.

Let me tell you the story children, gather round.  Normally on a Sunday I'd be at my Cathedral job wailing away to an aging Anglican congregation about how bad people we all are and will continue to be (it's Lent). All in a falsetto voice, of course.  But it was one of those days you ask to have off and everyone knows why.  I watched the first final at home, 10 AM local time, missing the opening penalty and a good chunk of the first half action in search of an illegal feed.

I don't want to talk about that final.  Was it a final?  Villa played with all the passion of Burnley away at Stamford Bridge.  It came off like a preseason friendly, and United's victory dance was so perfunctory as to underline the predictability of it all.  All hail Ferguson's 34th trophy.  And thanks for playing Villa, we'll see you in ten years time ready to drop another one.

The afternoon was another matter.  The Olympic Games always go the same way for me.  Before it begins I rock the hipster cynicism, "What time does it all start again?  Oh god, everyone's going to be weeping if we don't win in the hockey."  And then it progresses, medal by medal, game by game, until I find myself in packed bar on College Street in Toronto in the dying seconds of the third period, Canada leading by a slender 2-1 margin, sweating like I'm in a war.

We all know what happened next.  Zach Parise tied it with 24 seconds left in the game after a mad scramble in front of Roberto Luongo's net.  I don't know what I felt.  I know all the things that they tell you you're supposed to feel: hockey is overhyped in this country, a silver medal in mens hockey wouldn't have taken anything away from Canada in an Olympics that had seen, up until that point, 13 gold medals—already tied for the most won in a Winter Olympics, and three more than any host previous host nation.

That anti-hockey, anti-Olympian cynicism was dying to get in there and alleviate the stress. Susan G. Cole wrote in this week's NOW magazine (a free Toronto weekly that oh-so-desperately wants to be the Village Voice) about the ugliness of all that flag-waving:
All those rabid group-think pro-Canada histrionics, far from inspiring me, fill me with dread. Where does pumped-up patriotism lead anyway? And which Canada was I supposed to be cheering for? Our brand... sorry, I mean our image was at stake here, and we came across as hyper-nationalist yahoos who like to party in the streets and toot our own horn.
This aversion to showing colours for the sake of something as ostensibly pointless as sports (it's just guys kicking a ball or swatting a puck FFS!) is similar to how many of my friends feel in the lead up to the World Cup in this city.  "Is Portugal in it?" they sheepishly ask, knowing that if the answer is yes, they can give up sleeping in their West End apartments for the month of June.  That damn flag-waving.

In these situations, I always try to guess what my brother would think.  In 2002, when Canada beat the US in the mens hockey final at the Salt Lake City Olympics to secure their first Olympic hockey win in fifty years, he recounted the hallucinatory experience of walking down a packed Yonge Street, flags hanging out of cars, attached to hockey sticks.  He felt awe mixed with dread.  But he at least understood why they were there.

Cole is one of those left-wing columnists who makes you kiss the ground in thanks for people like Jennifer Doyle or Rick Salutin, for whom the vagaries of nationalism and sport aren't merely fish to shoot in a bucket, but contradictions to be acknowledged and discussed.  Yes, all those billions would have been better spent on the poor.  Yes, knee-jerk nationalism can be ugly.  But quashing the Olympics will hardly usher in the end of social injustice or lessen the suffering of the impoverished.  Capitalism hasn't "won" because McDonald's played the national anthem in the hockey ad breaks.  Sporting nationalism isn't always the harbinger of fascism.  For whatever reason—the sense that it is the opium of the masses, the enormous player wages involved, corporate sponsorships and the like—sport tends to make ideologues of the left, who when the topic comes up, suddenly employ the sort of "zero sum" speak normally attributed to many on the right of the political spectrum.

Eight minutes into sudden-death overtime, a bit of rubber crossed a red line on a patch of ice somewhere in Vancouver.  Seems a silly thing to spark what happened next, at least until you think what often leads to flag-waving in many countries: declarations of war, statist crackdowns, military coups.  Canadians don't do political nationalism very well.  In between the second and third periods of the final, the camera swooshed around in search of celebrities at the game. When Michael J. Fox, Neil Young and William Shatner appeared, the bar broke out in cheers.  Then a smug Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared sitting next to Wayne Gretzky, and the place erupted into boos (and no, they weren't saying "Luuuu" for Luongo).  Nobody told anyone in this bar that Olympic success would shore up support for the anti-democratic federal Tories, who prorogued parliament so our democracy would not "distract Canadians from the Olympic games."

When Sidney Crosby scored that goal, I leapt to my feet and grabbed my wife.  I climbed on my seat and tried to take pictures of the madhouse bar, none of which came out.  I watched as patrons unfurled an enormous Canadian flag and hauled it outside to be honked at by passers-by.  A German friend of mine said she hadn't seen celebrations like those that erupted across the county when Sidney Crosby scored in overtime, winning gold for Canada, even when Germany last won the World Cup in 1990.

Over the next few days though, Canadians turned on CBC radio and heard the speech to the throne and the federal budget, and griped and pointed accusations and wrote letters to the editor.  Meanwhile, our folded-up flags were already collecting dust in the basement, waiting for next time, whenever that might be.

Sport is essentially meaningless.  At the risk of sounding pretentious (too late for this blog), it's one of Wittgenstein's self-contained language games—everyone's agreed on the rules, and within the game itself, Shankly is right: it's more than life and death.  Seen from the outside though, it's completely absurd.  Many observers have tried turning to that dreaded concept, "symbolism," to try and save sport from its own essential lack of meaning.  But those pushing the idea that sport is really "something else"—"it's war!" "it's projected sexual desire!" "it's sublimated political alienation!"—are hucksters.  It is interrelated with politics and war, psychology and nationalism, but it's not those things.  It struts about like an irate Johan Cruyff (or our own hockey version, Patrick Roy) with on its own set of rules in a world driven by more practical/political interests.   

This desire to project meaning onto sport, or to point out its absence (Susan Cole), often reminds me of those people who weep and gnash teeth looking for some way of determining what it 'means' to be Canadian (this obsession with meaning!).  I once wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail after a Tory back-bencher wrote an op-ed pushing for Canada to appoint some national symbols ("hockey!" "Tim Hortons!" "John Candy!" "Healthcare!") before the realization dawns that we don't have any and so suddenly wither away and die away as a nation.  I argued that the meaning of "being Canadian" is a simple tautology: you are a Canadian because you are Canadian.  This doesn't make it empty, or less important.  It is vital.  But it too is essentially meaningless, like most nationalisms.  It's a contradiction, or what the theologians used to call a "mystery," if you want to get flighty about it.  Ours is a little more naked than most, that's all.    

In many ways, I think this open, ever-changing sense of who we are in this country leaves me optimistic about the chances of Canada embracing her other "national sport."  Next week I'll be unveiling (finally!) my new site on Canadian soccer history. It's dedicated to David Forsyth, Canada's first and greatest innovator of the game.  While Forsyth, who once made a soccer fan out of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, spoke to the importance of the sport in "bringing up young men," he primarily adored soccer because he believed it simply to be among the greatest sports ever played.  He was as great a Canadian as you can find in the political realm; he was an education innovator, working with the government on ways to improve high school education in Ontrario.  But he was dedicated to Canadian soccer, its development, its care.  Forsyth, who lived and worked when Canada was but a young man in an old mans world, was a living example of the Canadian tautology.  I hope there'll be many more like him to come.


Elliott said...

I can read between the lines, Mr. Whittall, and I hate to inform you, good sir, that David Forsyth is no Sydney Crosby!

Lanterne Rouge said...

Well said. I continually have to suffer the barbs of fellow left wing friends who decry my support of the England football team, not to say my interest in football in general. People like Cole need to understand that supporting sport is less about ritual, tribal instincts and all the other labels we supporters are provided with than simply enjoying it in its simplest fashion - and having a team to support enhances that enjoyment, be it a club side or a national one. The idea of reclaiming the flag has become a little hackneyed in recent times although Billy Bragg continues to do splendid work on this front, but there should be no shame in loudly cheering on one's national side as long as it is not accompanied by chauvinism. There is a world of a difference between jingoism and partisanship.

Jeremy said...

You got any feedback from that letter to the Globe?