Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Team Sports and Nationalism

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since I left my native country, Hungary, I have been a rebel about rooting for the home team. But I have to modify this in the light of my subsequent education. I do not mind rooting for club teams. I also find rooting for teams affiliated with private colleges and universities unproblematic. What really irks me is all those people who root for national teams. As you can imagine, I resisted rooting for Hungary’s teams in soccer or water polo or anything else. That’s because doing so seemed to me based on an irrational love of country.

What exactly is love of country anyway? Let me think—I do love Hungarian food and music and some of the landscape and the lay out of the city of Budapest. In fact, I think this last is awesome.

But does this have anything to do with their being Hungarian? I have no idea—Hungary is actually made up some many different ethnic, religions and national groups that it is nearly impossible to find anything specifically Hungarian other these more cultural than national elements. Yes, a gulyas soup is Hungarian. So is the csardas, which is a dance, although for all I know it may be danced in Rumania or Slovakia, too. I can say it rings my chimes when I hear music to which the csardas can be danced.

All in all I have had a very hard time watching sports that involve national competitions, like the World Cup. All this fussing over whether Germany or Italy or England or America is going to win, without much heed about who really is doing well at the sport other than for the sake of national victory. These are, as I see it, remnants of the rampant tribalism that has ruled the world from time immemorial.

Just how seriously even people in the most cosmopolitan regions of the globe embrace such tribalism can be appreciated from what is called the Cricket test, devised by one Norman Tebbit in 1990, a member of the Conservative political establishment in England. It is hypnotically administered to people from ethnic minorities in Britain to see if they have become British. Not until they supported an cricket team from England, in preference to the team from their native country.

Why on earth does one wish to test for such loyalties? What if some of the minorities are more familiar with members of teams from their native country and simply root for these teams for that reason, having nothing to do with politics, global or otherwise? What if I root for Hungarian fencers because my mother was a champion fencer back when I lived there, not because Hungary’s government or national history is swell?

Team sports encourage this nationalism, especially on the part of people who otherwise probably have little interest in politics. Root for the Americans, not because the country is superb to live in, certainly not because the team has earned respect for its skillful playing, but only because, well, its is the American team.

Maybe it is only a matter of taste. But I prefer tennis. There it is the individual for whom one can root, no matter where he or she hails from. If Andy Ruddick or Roger Federer plays the way you admire, you root for him regardless of where he is a citizen. Not that all of tennis avoids nationalism, of course. But it is simpler to ignore it. Of course, when an Australian plays in big tournament, there will always be a bunch of Australians in the stands waiving Australian flags. And so with other plays from other countries. But you need not take note of that at all. Even the players’ uniforms show you nothing about their countries, unlike so many of the uniforms of national teams.

I look forward to the time when all sports will be fully privatized and have nothing to do with politics at all.

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