The Role of Nationalism in the Olympics: Reflecting on the 2012 London Games

by Lijun Tang
Seafarers International Research Centre, Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

Sociological Research Online, 18 (2) 16

Received: 28 Nov 2012     Accepted: 30 Apr 2013    Published: 31 May 2013


The Olympic Games aim to promote the unity and friendship of humankind. By examining a number of stakeholders of the Games, this paper however demonstrates that the Olympics instigate nationalistic sentiments, provide an opportunity for a global audience to experience and express such feelings, and enable nation states and commercial sponsors to harness this. It argues that ironically, it is nationalistic sentiments rather than internationalism that serve the interests of stakeholders and underpin the Games' popularity, commercial success and state investment.

Keywords: Nationalism, Sport, Media, Patriotism, Olympic Movement, Olympic Heroes


1.1 Thanks to the broadcasting media, the Olympic Games have become a global spectacle attracting a huge number of TV viewers around the world (de Moraes 2012; Rojas 2012). The 2012 London Olympics boasted a global audience of 4.8 billion (London2012 2012), showing the popularity of the Games. It is argued that the Olympics and the media exist in a symbiotic relationship (Moretti 2005): while the media bring the Games to billions of viewers, the Games offer the media the content, which satisfies people's 'quest for excitement' (Elias & Dunning 1986) and serves to attract viewers and advertisers.

1.2 This intersection between the media and the Olympics provides rich materials for sociological studies of the Games. Two themes – commercialisation and nationalism – have received a large amount of research attention, and both have generated large bodies of literature. The first body of literature suggests that the commercialisation of the Olympics through media and corporate financing undermines the purpose of the event, which is to showcase athletic excellence achieved not due to monetary incentives, but due to the motivation to perfect the body, will and mind (Barney et al. 2002; Maguire et al. 2008; Rahman & Lockwood 2011). Regarding the second theme, research repeatedly found that the media coverage of the Games is nationalistic though the Olympic Movement aims to promote the unity of humankind (Billings 2008; Billings and Eastman 2002; Billings et al. 2011; Lee and Maguire 2011).

1.3 Seemingly the two themes are separate, and the different stakeholders involved, such as the media, states, audiences, athletes, and corporate sponsors, do not share much in common other than being Olympic stakeholders. This paper however will argue that this is not the case. Rather, it suggests that what underpin the commercialisation are nationalistic sentiments, with such sentiments linking together different stakeholders and serving their diverse interests. As such, while concurring with the previous research finding that the media coverage of the Olympics is nationalistic, this paper pushes it further arguing that nationalism is central to the Games as far as their popularity, commercial success and state investment are concerned. In this way, the paper also explores a different aspect of the commercialisation: what underpins it rather than the contradiction that it reflects.

1.4 To make the argument, this paper reflects on the London Olympics and how nationalism is shown by the different stakeholders. As a piece of commentary, this paper is based on observations of the BBC's coverage of the Games, relevant online media reports and previous research findings.

The media

2.1 The paper first examines the role of the media. Understandably the majority of the audience was not able to watch the Olympic Games at the scene in London, but experienced them in mediated forms, such as following the events on TV and online. Research on previous Olympics suggests that media coverage of the games was invariably nationalistic and tended to singularly highlight 'home' athletes (Moretti 2005). For example, Billings and Eastman (2002) noted that although American athletes won 11 per cent of the medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, more than half of all the athletes highlighted during the NBC's coverage of the games were American. Regarding the London Olympics, similarly, we saw that the BBC was more likely to cover events that featured Team GB athletes than any others. The successes of Team GB athletes dominated headlines of BBC news, and each medal won by Team GB athletes was repeatedly announced in the news. Only a few athletes of other nations enjoyed such publicity in the UK media. Perhaps what gave BBC audiences a clue of the performance of other nations was the medal table shown at the end of the Olympic news. It is not surprising then that out of the 20 most memorable moments of London 2012 chosen by the BBC,[1] seven highlighted exclusively the performances of Team GB athletes, another four featured both Team GB and foreign athletes, and three were given to the opening and closing ceremonies and Game venues.

2.2 Furthermore, Olympic broadcasters' comments produce either explicitly or implicitly an 'us vs. them' dichotomy (Billings 2008). Lee and Maguire (2011) examined South Korea's media coverage of the 2004 Olympic events in which North Korean athletes took part and found that the commentators regarded these athletes as 'us' – part of a unified Korea – as opposed to Chinese or Japanese. Billings et al. (2011) compared the coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics by NBC in the US and CCTV in China. They found that NBC devoted 83.5 per cent of all comments to American Olympians, while CCTV gave 52.2 per cent of all comments to Chinese athletes. This trend is also notable in the BBC's coverage of the London Olympics. The medal hopefuls of Team GB, such as Rebecca Adlington and the Brownlee brothers, were introduced using short films a couple of days before their performances. After the competition, Team GB medal winners were interviewed by BBC presenters immediately after the events as well as invited into the broadcasting studio in the evenings for further discussion of their success. By contrast, successful athletes of other nationalities were rarely given this honour. In fact, no athletes of other nationalities were invited into the BBC broadcasting studio. Presumably they were in the studios of their national broadcasters. As such, the coverage of the Olympics by the media seems nationalistic across the board.


3.1 The mass communication media are instrumental to 'the origin and spread of nationalism', as they enable people to imagine nationhood and develop nationalistic sentiments (Anderson 1983). In the case of the Olympics, as discussed above, the media fuel nationalistic sentiments. However, audiences are not merely passive message recipients, but interact with, and influence the outlook of, the media. The success of media organisations, regardless of whether they are commercially or publically funded, is likely to be measured by TV ratings or newspaper sales. To increase ratings/sales, the media have to tailor their content to audience tastes and make their coverage appealing to audiences. Wenner and Gantz (1989) found that, the top motivation for watching sports was to see the fate of their favourite team unfold, accompanied by the compelling drama and tension that sports provide. The favourite team in the context of the Olympics is likely to be the national one. We saw during the London Olympics that Team GB was the most supported team as the majority of the audiences in the scenes were British. Hannan (2012) observed:
Watching the first event, the men's cycling road race, in Surrey, I sensed that something had changed. Every house along the route was draped with Union flags. The people in front of those houses were cheerfully handing round drinks and sandwiches to strangers, united by the warm feeling that they were all hoping for the same thing.
He pointed out that supporting Team GB served to bring 'British patriotism back into fashion'. Although consisting of four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the UK is also one united nation-state. As such, 'British patriotism' can be argued to be a form of nationalism, and it can be said that the Olympic Games whip up strong nationalistic sentiments.

3.2 Audience support gave an advantage to home athletes and contributed to the success of Team GB at the London Olympics. Unsurprisingly, each time a Team GB medallist was interviewed after the game he/she never failed to acknowledge the incredible support from the (home) audience. For example, after winning the gold, Andy Murray said (Mitchell 2012), 'This week has been incredible so far – I've had a lot of fun, the support has been amazing. All of the events I've watched, the support has been amazing.' Though outnumbered by British audience, we also saw spectators from other countries. Unsurprisingly, American spectators waved the star-spangled flags and Japanese spectators cheered when their athletes were introduced.

3.3 Therefore, to increase ratings broadcasters naturally highlight the 'home' country. In other words, they capitalise on nationalistic sentiments in order to capture and maintain a strong viewer base. This is very important for the broadcasters, as buying the right to broadcast the games is costly. For example, NBC paid a staggering $1.181 billion for the exclusive right to broadcast the London Olympics in the US (Whannel 2005). The willingness to pay such a vast sum is due to the belief that such coverage would increase significantly the ratings and thus the advertising revenue. It is therefore reasonable to expect that broadcasters would cover aspects of the games perceived to be of utmost interest to the home audiences. Media houses conduct extensive market research to find out their target audiences' preferences in order to appropriately focus their event coverage (Billings 2008). Furthermore the broadcasters as part of the national audience themselves (Ross 2012), well appreciate the fact that national TV audiences want to watch games involving home athletes (Billings 2008). Being audience themselves, broadcasting commentators understandably often serve as cheerleaders for the home team and help to whip up excitement and support. This was most vividly shown when Mo Farah was about to win his second gold medal and the BBC commentators could not help jumping for joy.[2]

Olympic heroes

4.1 As audiences are likely to support their home teams, they inevitably expect home athletes to win. In a sense, the victory of an athlete is also the victory of his/her supporters. Otherwise, why do the supporters also feel the joy and a sense of triumph? By winning glories for supporters, athletes become heroes and audiences engage in different forms of hero-worshipping. Furthermore, to stay at the top, athletes have to train hard, persevere in spite of injuries and bodily pains, and constantly push themselves to the limit. These qualities make winners more heroic. As such, Whannel (2002: 46) points out that 'the cultures of sport still depend in part on a constant re-enacting of the heroic'.

4.2 However, while the Olympics are international, heroes are likely to be nation specific. A common scene after winning a game is that the champion waves his/her national flag with joy. This symbolises that the victory is also for the nation and for everybody represented by this flag to enjoy. After Ruta Meilutyte, the 15-year-old Lithuanian swimmer trained in Plymouth, won the 100m breaststroke gold, the BBC commentators talked about adopting her as a Brit. This suggests that that only by adopting her could the British share her victory legitimately, which again indicates that Olympic glory tends to be nation specific. Meanwhile, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite deliberately extended her visit in London for another day in order to show support at the finals because the swimmer's performances in the heats and semi-final made her a medal favourite (15MIN 2012). To the Lithuanian citizens, the president's gesture represented the country's solidarity in support of their national heroes, in this case, Ruta Meilutyte. Although the British were able to claim some joy in the fact that she was trained in the UK, theirs was not as legitimate as the Lithuanians who could claim her as their daughter. Because Olympic medallists bring about glories to the nation and are national heroes, they also tend to receive a heroic home-coming when they return from the tournament. As both audiences and the media are more interested in the performance of their home teams and both frame events in an 'us vs. them' dichotomy, foreign athletes are likely to be opponents, rather than heroes.

4.3 There are exceptions to this norm though. The first one relates to those athletes whose extraordinary performance makes them international heroes as much as national, such as Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Such outstanding athletes are normally celebrated by audiences across the national divide and tend to be the key highlights and crowd pullers. The second exception relates to extraordinary performers representing small, often nondescript economies, especially when they dominate events where the major economic powers lack effective representation. Kenyan and Ethiopian long distance athletes often have the support of audiences across the national divide. While such cases undoubtedly transcend nationalism, they are nevertheless exceptions.

4.4 Olympic heroes are role models whose performance is expected to 'inspire a generation'. As such, they have commercial values and their images can be used to promote products. While corporate organisations capitalise on the attached culture of hero-worshipping and utilise it in the marketing of commercial products/services, they understand that Olympic heroes are likely to be national ones and identified by the home audience. For this reason, while Kellogg's breakfast cereals are promoted by Chris Hoy and Kelly Holmes in the UK, its advertising features American athletes, such as swimmer Rebecca Soni and gymnast Gabrielle Douglas in the US. In fact, except for Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, we rarely see non-Team GB Olympic medallists featured in commercials in the UK. In China, favourite advertising Olympians are Sun Yang (swimmer), Lin Dan (Badminton player), and Ye Shiwen (swimmer), all Chinese (Guo 2012). As such what commercial sponsors harness in effect is often nationalism.


5.1 The victory of one athlete means the defeat of another/others. As argued, behind an Olympian are his/her supporters and the nation. Therefore, an Olympic victory implies the defeat of other nations, which instigates national pride and symbolises national prowess. As such, the Olympics are seen as a stage for powerful states to showcase their supremacy and enhance their national image around the world. All superpowers vie for top positions on the medal table, and many states, such as the UK (Anderson 2012), China (21CN.COM 2012), and Australia (Schaffer & Smith 2000), invest heavily in the Olympics in one form or another. Medals are no longer just about sporting talents, but increasingly a function of heavy financial investment and national pride. According to The Guardian (2012) each medal won by Team GB corresponds with an average £4.5 million of funding. It is not surprising then that top countries in the medal counts of the Olympics, are likely to be those economically powerful.

5.2 Bletchly (2012) argues that the competition between nations for supremacy makes the Olympics 'a war without gunfire' where rivalries generate mistrust which can escalate into rows between nations. At the centre of one big row at the London Olympics was the Chinese Swimmer Ye Shiwen. Her victory in the women's 400 metres medley prompted the American swimming coach John Leonard to say openly (Wilson 2012): 'The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, "unbelievable", history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved.' Perhaps unwittingly, the prestigious scientific journal Nature also got involved in the controversy when it published a report online originally titled: Why great Olympic feats raise suspicions: 'Performance profiling' could help catch sports cheats. The report suggested that Ye's performance was anomalous and raised doping suspicion. This report received hundreds of critical comments, the majority of which are unsurprisingly from people with Chinese names. As all the comments were written in sound English, it is reasonable to assume that they were likely to be written by Chinese living overseas. These commenters argued that the report was biased by either cherry-picking data or using wrong evidence. The most thorough and thoughtful comment as judged by the editors was written by Lai Jiang, a scholar at University of Pennsylvania. Overwhelmed by critical comments, the journal editors changed the subtitle of the report two days later to 'Performance profiling' could help dispel doubts, for the reason that the original one was unfair to Ye. An editor's note was appended to respond to the critical comments, especially that of Lai Jiang, and apologised for the errors and flaws in the report pointed out by readers.[3]

5.3 This incident reinforces two points discussed previously. First, media audiences are not necessarily passive recipients, and their sentiments may shape the media. Secondly, in the context of the Olympics, audiences harbour nationalistic sentiments. Therefore, Chinese audiences came to the fore. Furthermore, the prominence of overseas Chinese nationals in this case seemed to suggest that nationalistic sentiments were deeply rooted. Arguably, their nationalistic feelings were hurt as the report cast doubt on Ye's victory which they could share and enjoy, and therefore they fought back to defend their share of glory.


6.1 This paper illustrates that nationalism can be seen as central to the Olympics, as it links together various stakeholders and serves their different interests. The Olympics is a stage for competition between athletes of different nations. In this context, audiences support and pay attention to the 'home' team, and share their victories as well as the associated sense of triumph and national pride. In response to audience preferences, the media highlight 'home' athletes and serve as cheerleaders for the home team in order to attract viewers. The ability to attract a large body of viewers benefits the media financially, which in turn make the media willing to pay the International Olympic Committee a handsome coverage fee. The Games produce national heroes who win/defend glory not only for themselves but also for the nation, which help the nation to showcase its supremacy. As heroes 'inspire a generation', they also help to promote the products/services of their commercial sponsors. Thanks to the sentiment of nationalism, Olympic victory can be shared across the board. As such, the symbiotic relationship between the Olympics and the media (Moretti 2005) is underpinned by nationalism. It is perhaps more precise to say that the symbiotic relationship is constituted by three parties – nationalism, the media and the Olympics, as they feed as well as feed on each other.

6.2 According to the Olympic Charter (IOC 2011), the Games serve to promote the unity and friendship of humankind, rather than nationalism. However, this paper demonstrates that the Olympics instigate nationalistic sentiments, provide an opportunity for a global audience to experience and express such feelings, and enable nation states and commercial sponsors to harness this. Ironically then, it is nationalistic sentiments that are central to the Games and underpin their popularity, commercial success and state investment.


I would like to thank Victor Gekara, Neil Ellis and Louise Deeley for their suggestions and editorial help. I am also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.


1 The video is available at: <>

2 See the video at: <>

3 For the report, editor's note, and all the comments including Lai Jiang's, see: <>


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