A semiotic reading of the OLYMPIC ATHLETE:
Despite the many changes that have taken place between the ancient and modern eras that compose the whole of Olympic history, one common theme has remained prominent: the glory of the individual athlete. From the ancient wrestler of sixth century BC, Milo of Croton, to modern names such as Michael Phelps, it seems that the individual achievement, personality, and perseverance of the athlete stands paramount.
There is an unambiguous flip-side to this sense of individuality, though, which we all recognize as nationalism. Teams compete against each other based on national affiliation and even individual sports (such as swimming, fencing, wrestling, and the martial arts) are arbitrarily grouped into teams based on citizenship. Beyond this, the Olympics have often been a forum for nations to showcase their unity, strength, and pride. Recall the Berlin Olympics of 1936 when Hitler used the games to showcase Germany's renewed strength since defeat in the Great War. Today, many commentators observe the Beijing Olympics as a show of China's new economic and industrial clout. These "national displays" demonstrate that the Olympic athlete is an individual, but that this is important only insofar as he/she is a member of a nation.
One powerful symbol of this individual/national duality which privileges nationhood over personhood in the 2008 games doesn't even occur as part of a sporting event. A little girl by the name of Lin Miaoke took part in the Opening Ceremony of the games and appeared to sing. In reality, however, the voice that was heard came from another little girl, Yang Peiyi, who was deemed less attractive and thus not suitable for the world (television) audience. This is a strong case in which individual skills are highlighted, but subordinated to the national cause.
What has been stated thus far is fairly obvious to most astute observers of the Olympics, however, the main point that I would like to make has to do with precisely how and why the athlete him/herself makes such an ideal national symbol. First, consider the amount of training and preparation that goes into the careers of the vast majority of Olympic athletes and couple this with the level of innate talent, confidence, and focus necessary to succeed in the world class Olympic arena. The final product of all of this - the Olympic athlete him/herself - is perceived as a symptom of the culture that bred him/her.
Second, the training regiment that the majority of athletes must undertake precludes their full participation in "extracurriculars" such as political/philosophical debate, popular culture, and generally subversive behavior. This arrangement suits national needs well since it presents individual athletes as "empty symbols" or signifiers (to use a semiotic term) that are ready to be filled by the significance prescribed by the nation-state. In support of this contention, there are several examples of instances where Olympians were banned for having political or philosophical opinions. Recall the Tommie Smith and John Carlos "black power" fist-pump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when the Unites States originally denounced the athletes for their overt display of politics. (Interestingly, they are recent recipients of the ESPN Arthur Ashe Courage Award.) More recently, China banned U.S. gold-medalist William "Joey" Cheek from competition because of his outspoken stance on the situation in Darfur.
Before I close, it should be noted that there have been some athletes, no matter how few and far between, who have permitted to embody their own unique personality complete with personal philosophy and political opinion. Among these are Joey Cheek, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, and a few others. It is my perspective that if more emphasis was placed on Olympians as individuals and not as mere nationally-generated "winning-machines" to slap a flag on, the Olympic spirit of global solidarity and open international communication would be better facilitated.
Matthew T. Jones