An Olympic Scatology

Writing about the recently concluded Olympic Games in London, Uri Avnery made an observation that should be familiar to Indians. Israeli athletes don’t win many medals in international competitions. But when they do, the Israeli press goes a little nuts, immediately claiming the victory and the medal ‘for the Jewish people.’ The typically large Indian contingent in London (some eighty-odd men and women) managed, quite atypically, to pick up a half-dozen medals. There were no golds, and it was by almost any measure another stupendous display of underachievement. Nevertheless, it was the most medals that any Indian Olympic squad has ever won, and each person who picked up a silver or bronze was declared by the Indian media to have ‘brought glory to the nation.’ Politicians fell over themselves to congratulate them (headlines along the lines of ‘Chief Minister fellates wrestler’ became common) and give them millions of tax-payer rupees that are denied to schools and hospitals. (Recently, a five-day-old baby died in an Indian hospital under circumstances that would make Ayn Rand sit up in hell: when the parents could not pay a 200-rupee bill, the hospital removed the infant from the ICU. So it goes.)

An Olympic bronze is nothing to scoff at, of course, and the athletes who won those medals – and even those who failed to win – deserve nothing less than admiration. What is disturbing is the ‘glory to the nation’ business: not only the swallowing of the individual by the mob, but also the assumption that a bronze (or gold, for that matter) can bring ‘glory’ to a nation. Glory, by definition, requires a certain amount of basking. To bask effectively, you need admiring others. So when a bronze brings ‘glory to the nation,’ there must be a presumption that the rest of the world, or at least a significant part of it, is looking on admiringly. The level of deluded narcissism is amusing at best, but mostly it’s pathetic. Nobody else cares, bhai. Get over it.

It is no doubt true that this tendency towards overreaction has to do with the rarity of medals and victories. When you finally get one, you celebrate a little too much, like a drunk after a successful game of darts at the bar (or Virat Kohli after a Test century). The US typically wins a lot of medals at the Olympics, so there is no great jumping up and down after any one medal, give or take a ‘miracle on ice’ against the Soviet Union. (An absurd tamasha of national glory if there ever was one, typically American in its over-the-top sentimentality.) 

But the key issue is not just the ‘glory,’ but the ‘national.’ Middle-class Indians have a nasty habit of turning every success into a case for national glory. Not just wrestlers and boxers, but beauty queens, film-makers, economists and chemistry professors become the gymnasts of the nation. We are like that only, we claim you, a simpering Shekhar Gupta told a nervously giggling Manoj ‘Night’ Shyamalan some years ago. (That was back when ‘Night’ – who imagines himself to be an American Indian, not to mention an Indian-American – was being feted by Newsweek as the next Spielberg. No nation that takes its glory seriously would approach him anymore.) Those who resist, like the Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, are treated with consternation, as if their discomfort with the national embrace is a sign of moral depravity.

What brings on this bizarre breaking of nationalist wind? The reasons must vary quite a lot from nation to nation. In the Israeli case, it might be the neurosis of a small country that thrives on imagining itself as permanently beleaguered: its public discourse seeks to fortify the morale of the laager on the one hand, and on the other, reach out to a wider ‘Jewish people.’ The laager is simultaneously affirmed and denied. In the American case, looking to ‘Team USA’ as a source of glory is actually the exception, not the norm, where sport is concerned. (Thank God for that. The sight of right hands pressed reverently to athletic bosoms in roaring stadiums is bad enough: a cross between a prayer and a Nazi salute.) Besides, the US goes to war – the real thing, as Avnery points out – so frequently that sport is generally not required for national glory.

In the Indian case, we have the usual tangle of motives. The rhetoric of ‘Team India’ (first applied to cricket, naturally) is a direct imitation of ‘Team USA.’ (Now, just as amusingly, the Brits have followed suit and given us ‘Team GB.’ Not even Mrs. Thatcher thought of that one.) But unlike Team USA, Team India is tasked quite seriously with national glory, which means being like the US in its structures and symbols. Having a ‘Team India’ is, in other words, itself glorious: a whiff of relevance, glamor, America. It is the rhetoric of power that, in the ideal outcome, combines with the oxygen of victory. When Abhinav Bindra won a gold medal in shooting four years ago in Beijing, the national hoopla had nothing to do with any appreciation of target-shooting. It was about the gold and the impoverished tribe: we have a winner.  Likewise, when the altogether inspiring Mary Kom wins a boxing bronze in London, what matters most is not her skill and courage, or the fact that she comes from a humble background in a marginal state, has two kids, and was fighting in a higher-than-usual weight class, but the sense that she has added to the national wealth. We have a winner, sort of.

Not every nation that is not America reacts like this to international competition; neither do all Indians. It is, predictably, the middle class that displays its insecurities so nakedly. It might be argued that what fuels this insecurity is not an excess of numbers (like a billion-plus population) as a paucity of numbers: i.e., the fact that the class that is most ardently nationalistic, the most infatuated with international completion, is outnumbered in its own country by people who don’t care all that much about these things. Its cultural space is constantly encroached upon by the great unwashed, who also sit in Parliament, show up in the same political demonstrations on the Ram Lila grounds, make their own claims to being the face of the nation, and worst of all, contaminate those who would otherwise be glorious. The latter must therefore underline its distinct modernity by declaring its love of ‘Team India’ or ‘Force India’ or whatever.

This internal insecurity breeds insecurity on the world stage. The obsession with ‘national glory’ through Nobel prizes and Olympic medals is actually closely tied to babies dying in hospitals because their laborer parents could not pay two hundred rupees. Middle-class Indian patriots are quite aware that such things don’t happen in ‘winner’ countries, and that their inability to prevent it in their own country is utterly inglorious. It reduces them to the level of the impotent and devastated laborers, who are their compatriots, after all. Victories and medals are needed in compensation. Abhinav Bindra's air gun (which could be considered slightly comic, like air guitar and air kisses) becomes something more lethal and important.

We are talking, therefore, of a particular form of ressentiment, or the nationalism of existential envy. Normatively (if we concede without a struggle that Europe is the norm), ressentiment nationalism had to do with a sense of having been ‘done in’ by foreigners and aliens: the French, the British, Jews, Muslims, cosmopolitans, communists. They screwed us over, so we are behind them in the number of battleships and natives we command: self-assertion and self-fulfillment are inseparable from revenge and victory. That sense of thwarted glory generated the hunger for a place in the sun, whether that place was on the victory stand, the battlefield or the map. In India, the greater fear and hatred are directed against the Self that has disgraced itself. By being Team India, by winning medals on the international stage, we appear in our own eyes to conquer and transcend ourselves.

This is also a problem of liberalism, which is why the phenomenon doesn’t materialize in every country where hospitals throw poor babies out of Intensive Care. No doubt there are other such lands, but the political culture of those countries was not magically impregnated by Mill, Gokhale, Nehru and Ambedkar. In India, where the pregnant lady (Mother India, naturally, who is accustomed to multiple/ambiguous fathers) actually gave birth to the uncertainly wanted child, the frustrations of liberal nationhood inevitably take the form of an increasingly strident insistence upon the supreme importance of the national community and state. Nehru stumbles and loses his way; Bose and Savarkar step forward, saluting breathlessly under a ton of marigold.

It is not a pretty sight. The statue of Bose on the seafront in Port Blair can take one’s breath away simply by being grotesque: Billy Bunter meets Mussolini, stabbing the air with his finger like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. There is, it would seem, no other way to be: not only no other way to be a community, but also no other way to be a person. The individual embarrassed by his failure as a liberal citizen must seek his dignity – and, impossibly, his individuality – by burrowing deeper into the bowels of the national collective, producing a rampantly illiberal nationhood.  Exhausted by the attempt to distinguish himself from those who apparently place no value on individuality, he seeks to redeem everybody – the indifferent, the reluctant, the peasant, the wrestler – by stuffing them within the national body.  A badminton player wins a bronze when her opponent pulls a muscle and defaults, and – Jai ho! – brings glory to the nation. (No fault of Saina Nehwal: a wonderful athlete.) Meanwhile in Calcutta, Mamata Banerjee taps into glory by turning Independence Day into an occasion for a police parade on Red Road, giving the cops a break from arresting her critics. If the thought of the Calcutta Police marching past with their pot bellies and Lee Enfield rifles is funny, the immediate model – the Republic Day parade on Janpath, with its combination of missiles and ‘culture’ – is hardly more edifying. The search for national glory is never too far removed from farce.

Ressentiment and a place in the sun, medals and national redemption, parades and salutes! I write this rambling mess sitting in Munich, after having spent a few days in Berlin: evocative cities in Olympic history. One evokes a highly orchestrated attempt to bring glory to the nation, while the other evokes murder, or at any rate, hostage-taking and a botched rescue, also charged with the desires and embarrassments of national redemption. Ach, armen Deutschen. But there were other things, that can be described as either flies in the ointment, or simply joyful. Jesse Owens, for instance. Also in Berlin in 1936, the Indian hockey team beat Germany 8-1 in the final in front of a full house. (Leni Riefenstahl generously included a part of the match in her film Olympia.)

Indeed, it can be argued that in the past, Indian sport delivered the occasional dose of joy; glory was not on the menu. Indian athletes inspired affection rather than awe. P.T. Usha, one of the few truly great athletes India has produced (the others being Sachin Tendulkar and Dhyan Chand), never won an Olympic medal; yet her run in Los Angeles in 1984 was as moving as any gold. ‘Losing’ a race by one-one-hundredths of a second is more than heartbreaking: it is reasonable cause for a wry contemplation of the interrelationship of mathematics, technology and truth in the modern world. Nevertheless, Usha’s run in LA was a matter of joy. Before her, there was Milkha Singh in Rome in 1960 and Mushtaq Ali in Manchester (in 1936, coincidentally). ‘Relaxing?’ a friendly journalist asked Milkha by the hotel pool. ‘No, Milkha Singh,’ he is reported to have replied earnestly. In Amsterdam in 1928, the Indian hockey players defeated the United States 24-1 in another Olympic final. The Dutch spectators (another full house) were hugely entertained, as, of course, were Indian supporters back home. It is said that the only American goal was scored when Indian goalkeeper Richard Allen was off the field signing autographs. That kind of humor in sport is incompatible with glory, which is a prickly, deadly serious and mean-spirited thing.

Between the joy and the glory is an aesthetic chasm that is also a chasm of language. Who in Europe talks about glory anymore? The Serbs, and perhaps the French right, but not many others. The English would soon start to giggle. (The ‘queen’ parachuting from the helicopter at the Olympic opening ceremony gave the game away once again: glory has been transmuted, thankfully, into a satire of power and pomp.) Few Germans would even think in terms of national glory, and that is the most attractive thing about present-day Germany, aside from Weissbier on the banks of the Isar in the summertime. The German football team in the 2010 World Cup was a thing of joy, not glory.

Yet in India, the rhetoric of national glory has not only persisted, but expanded in scale and scope, grabbing larger and larger swaths of public discourse. It might be argued that this is a problem of English-as-a-second language: that the translated meaning (i.e., what is written and said) has not kept pace with the political meaning (what is thought). It may indeed be that the Indian understanding of national glory is significantly different from, say, the French in 1914, or the German in 1938. But there is more to it than that. There is an ugly innocence that the Indian middle class shares with its counterparts in America and Israel, and this is something that the loss of empire, two world wars, genocide and a partial rethinking of nationhood has eroded in Europe: innocence about what the defenders of freedom/empire actually do when they are doing their jobs, innocence about what has been done to the Palestinian people, innocence about the consequences of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. (The last signed into being by Nehru, although, one likes to imagine, with a grimace and a pat of the bronze hand of Lincoln on his desk.)

Such innocence is fundamentally primitive, childish and allergic to irony. Not only does it produce the delusions about butt-chinned men ‘saving the world’ that remain a staple of American culture, it’s the sort of thing that once led Europeans to celebrate the outbreak of the Great War, and that leads Indians to put garlands on new tanks without giving a thought to what a tank shell does to a human body. The notion that the body will always be that of an enemy soldier and not of a child, or even your own, is part of this innocence. Garlanding tanks and doing a little puja for a new warship has very little to do with ancient rituals of worshipping weapons and everything to do with the modern fetish of nationalist display, in which nationhood itself is fundamentally innocent and pure. The unconsidered images of dismembered bodies and the public images of flower-bedecked tanks constitute the visual aesthetic of national glory, which makes it possible to imagine Olympic events as battles for collective validation.

The Olympic ‘movement’ itself has been deeply schizophrenic about these things, since from its inception it has emphasized both international competition and depoliticized individual effort, while remaining hazy about the connection between them. Is sport a metaphor of war, or of peace? Was the ‘Black Power’ salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlo in Mexico City controversial because it violated the Olympic truce, or because it blocked the appropriation of their medals by the grubby hands of national glory and constituted an intolerable counter-aesthetic? Did Jesse Owens bring ‘glory’ to the United States? Few Americans would have thought so in 1936, and Owens was eventually remembered for having achieved something much more important, which was muddying up the rhetoric of national glory. Not even the Indian hockey teams of those years could bring an uncomplicated glory: there were too many Anglo-Indian players for that (including the missing goalkeeper in Los Angeles), and Anglo-Indians do not fit easily into the concept of the Indian nation. Was Richard Allen Indian? Was Norman Pritchard? Who remembers old Norm, anyway? What Olympic organizers, cheerleading journalists and commentators on Internet forums tend to avoid is not politics as such, or even individuals. They recoil from loose cannons.

It is, I hope, clear in this essay that I am not at all opposed to nationalism in sport. Nationalism is the spice of sport; it would be impossible, otherwise, to take pleasure in a five-day game of cricket. The citizenship of P.T. Usha and Mary Kom, not to mention Sachin Tendulkar, is central to the joy they have provided. Indeed, sport is probably the only setting in which a modern individual can enjoy his membership in a collective without killing somebody or having a leg blown off. A nationalist with an air gun is almost always preferable to a nationalist with a real gun. I am not even opposed to tanks in all circumstances. A tank, like a turd, has a function in the world. I am griping, because I have nothing better to do, about a particular way of talking about nationally organized sport, and a particular way of picturing tanks (festooned with flowers like a newlyweds' Ambassador). I am griping about an aesthetic that is crass, undignified, unnecessary, destructive of the very norms of liberal citizenship that make nationhood worthwhile, and ultimately inseparable from failures of the worst kind.

August 17, 2012