One of the fascinating things about the Olympics has always been how it emphasises nationalism, yet expects us all not hate other nations. In sporting terms, we in Britain find that difficult and we are by no means alone.

Yet these London Games have once again shown the Olympics pull off this amazing trick: drape yourself in your nation’s flag but do not seek to burn other people’s flags.

We saw that magnificently illustrated last night at the Olympic Stadium when, even as the British audience acclaimed Christine Ohuruogu getting the silver medal in the 400m, they did not forget to applaud the American winner Sanya Richards-Ross. Yes, the cheers for the Brit were louder and more sustained, but that is what you would expect.

The Americans have always understood that displays of nationalism and sport go together. Every domestic baseball game or NFL match starts with the singing of the national anthem. You can well imagine the hoots of derision this would lead to in Britain if the football authorities were to try and do that. As it happens, at football internationals, particularly involving England, it is not uncommon for heartfelt pleas to be made not to boo or jeer during the singing of the opposing team’s anthem.

Yet, in the last week, many of these sporting fans have been at Olympic stadiums and have had to constantly stand while the national anthems of USA, China and various other nations have been played without any fear that they would be a single boo or hiss. The very idea that fans would have to be admonished to behave themselves during the singing of other people’s national anthems would seem strange during an Olympics.

It is tempting to suggest that maybe there should be an Olympic sport to judge the singing of anthems. My gold would go to South Africa’s anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), for its haunting melody and the images it brings to mind.

Many are the claims made for the Olympics and not all the visions Pierre Coubertin had for the Games have come true. But in the way the Olympics has married nationalism and sport, it has proved a winner and a lesson for other sporting events.


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