What Do The Olympics Mean To You?

Watching the Olympics has always been an event in my house. My dad is an avid sports fan, so we always watch a lot of sports, but something about the Olympics brings out part of him that was lost in living in the United States for 30+ years. The opportunity to root for India. India doesn’t have a major presence in the Winter Olympics, but we still watch it together as a ritual homage to foreign nations and one of the few opportunities we can see other countries compete amongst each other.
But sentimentality aside (don’t act like you didn’t cry when China won gold and silver in couple iceskating last night), the Olympics is not without its issues. Not only it is a reminder of the violence of nationalism, colonial conquest and division between the first and third world, but it often uses indigenous iconography to create homogenous identities based on history often infected with violence. Guest Blogger, Toban Black at Sociological Images has an amazing and thorough break down of the use of indigenous signifiers at the 2010 Winter Olympics and their homogenizing effect.

The Olympics branding denies noteworthy differences among native groups spread across these areas. Passing theatrical gestures to native peoples during the open ceremonies could be considered to be more respectful, but Olympics marketers otherwise have been mixing up North American native traditions into a soup-like caricature. Natives have been consistently oppressed, but the various peoples who are considered to be native (in some way, or to some degree) certainly are not ‘all the same.’ Tacking Arctic imagery on to Vancouver-area Games implies that there is only one native essence (in North America, if not beyond this continent).

This essentialism is at the heart of what makes the Olympics so enjoyable for people like my parents and so problematic for the representation of people that not only don’t identify but have been in violent turbulence with these nation-states. For all the national identity markers, come with them the baggage of nation-building and its surrounding violence. Black points this out further concluding that an inability to hear the protests to use indigenous imagery further shows this hypocrisy.

In sum, mainstream Canada claims and re-packages imagery from natives to sell a vision of a present-day Canada that is a tolerant country, with a rich and interesting history; such visions have been produced for the 2010 Games – as well as other tourism and merchandising, and wider nationalism. Then, ironically, when pro-indigenous groups challenge the use of this appropriated iconography to represent ‘Canada,’ majority groups dismiss their protests by claiming a more authentic Canadian-ness. Of course, the refusal to take indigenous protests seriously is just another manifestation of disinterest in the welfare of living indigenous peoples. Even as gestures are made toward native culture, actual natives generally are ignored.

I will continue to watch the Olympics but not without the grave understanding of how it is implicated in the erasure of colonialism, genocide and dissent.

Join the Conversation

  • cattrack2

    I thinks its great that Canada has chosen the symbol they have. Its a branding move which is readily recognizable as indigenous, without being so widely seen that its trite. Its immediately iconographic. As far as the issues raised by Sociological Images, I’d have to humbly disagree. I think they took a nitpicky attitude to it. The icon represents Arctic natives, not Vancouver natives. It doesn’t represent all natives. Its appropriative. You can’t very well come up with 1 icon that’s geographically precise, yet represents all Canadians, yet represents the diversity of identity/belief/politics of all Canadians.
    I think most of the issues SI brings up are trivial, and that’s a shame because the end of the article brings up issues of real significance–like the education, poverty, and health of Canada’s native populations. Sharing the wealth of the Olympics–both figuratively & literally–is the real issue here.

  • feministnc

    Thanks for this post, I struggle similarly with the Olympics (the Summer ones, never got into the Winter ones), even if given that I do not have a TV what I end up watching is only a few online highlights. In addition to a postcolonial awareness regarding the Olympics, there’s also the social issues behind them. I explain, Olympics and other mass events such as Soccer World Cups, etc. involve a massive transfer of resources towards construction and security, and away from social priorities. Add to that the fact that these events sometimes result in forced relocations for poor populations currently occupying areas that could become ‘valuable real state.’ Increased policing, of course, also targets the poor…. and cuts on social expenditure usually affect women and children particularly hard.
    Two videos reflect on these issues on the Canadian Olympics and the forthcoming ones in Rio:
    Last but not least, there’s always something icky about the patriotism around these events (I think the coverage of China vs. the US in the latest Summer Olympics is enough of a proof), the heteronormativity, and the insane focus on perfect/potent bodies that surrounds press coverage. No wonder authoritarian governments are extremely kin of sports and of organizing these events (Nazi Germany in 1936, Argentina 1978’s Soccer World Cup).

  • Suzza

    As someone of partially First Nations desent who has grown up in Vancouver, I totally agree with the article posted. It’s not a matter of the symbols not representing someone, it’s the generic nature of the ceremonies – and utter commercialization of these symbols – when less than forty percent of First Nations peoples in BC support the Olympics. Or the irony of showing an opening ceremony “devoted” to elders when the commercials in between said things like “This is MY ski HILL and MY LAND.” . . but in reality, BC is the only area of Canada where the land is still unceeded and illegally held. But to many, any recognition of First nations culture is good recognition . . but that’s another issue in itself.
    Even so, the I don’t live in Vancouver now, but I live in a major city centre about eight hours north. The day after the 40 thousand dollar fireworks display, our city announced it was closing almost half of the schools in the area – primarily inner city ones. You can guess which communities this will be impacting the most. There is just so much BROKEN with our government system that is seems appalling to capitalize on the image of people, who at other points, are marginalized and ignored.

  • TigerLily

    I think that the the SI post was a bit of a stretch at times- I never got the impression that the arctic natives were representing Vancouver specifically, they were representing Canada as a whole. (Just look at all of the representations of French Canadian culture in the opening ceremony, no one thought those symbols were representing Vancouver specifically.)
    While the imagery in the opening ceremonies was problematic, I don’t remember anything like that during the Salt Lake City or Atlanta Olympics that acknowledged indigenous Americans in any way. (Was there any? I honestly don’t remember.) The fact that indigenous culture was such a big part of ceremony was really striking to me. Baby steps.

  • A male

    The Olympics to me means watching those of the privileged nations who have the best support systems or can afford the best trainers and facilities (or have the time and resources to train before/after work or even full time) battling over who gets the most medals; while less fortunate individuals who may have just as much spirit, effort or potential, but lack opportunities make do with what they have – or never become known at all. Example: witness how many fewer nations are represented at the WINTER Olympics than at the Summer Games, simply because so many fewer people have access to leisure and training time on snow and ice. Brings to mind the prince of a certain African nation who represented his country in the downhill (at a “leisurely” pace nearly one minute off the mark) simply because he had the opportunity to learn to ski while on vacation in Europe, while attending university in the UK, while those of northern nations are “expected” to win. Even a prince did not have the career option of world class downhill skier open to him.
    Yes, figure skating is so wonderful to watch. That’s what people can accomplish when they practice hard from before sunrise till time for school, then after school until late at night, for ten years, training under internationally known coaches, relocating cross country or even internationally for the opportunity; with your mother available to drive you or live with you, because you can afford it. I am two or three steps removed from one of the world’s finest young male figure skaters from Japan, who trained in the same facility where the children of a client of mine took skating lessons on weekends (who were privileged in their own right as children of a physician – more common children probably played outside or watched TV as opposed to being driven hundreds of miles on weekends simply to take figure skating lessons). I am also about three months from bankruptcy and homelessness at any given time and live in Hawaii, so it doesn’t matter if my children have potential and physical advantages from God to become great (winter) athletes, it’s not going to happen. I need my wife to justify to me why my daughter can get $25 a month hula lessons, or $100 a month piano lessons. Our son receives no professional training at all, and we don’t have time for them to do more popular extracurricular activities such as soccer or baseball six days a week.

  • Smartpatrol

    As a Vancouver resident who fought against this BS from day one, believe me when I tell you that ripping off 1st Nations iconography is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
    This is from someone I trust when it comes to knowing the crucial importance in Having $$ & Planning Ahead: http://valerian.livejournal.com/472267.html

  • attentat

    That’s also after several years of anti-Olympics organizing, especially by First Nations members in BC.

  • Lau

    This isn’t just about appropriation of indigenous symbols for the Olympics, it’s about how an Olympic Industrial Complex (which encompasses everything from RBC and HBC to the Canadian Government to the IOC to the networks which air the Olympics and the people who watch them) contributes (significantly) to the oppression of Aboriginal peoples in Canada while simultaneously feigning interest in their cultures.
    But this says it much better than I can…
    If you’re watching the Olympics i think its also important to understand how you are complicit in supporting a system that has negative effects on local communities, indigenous and otherwise.

  • JasonM

    Thanks for this post.
    I enjoy the Olympics, but I gave up any idealistic notions about the “Olympic Movement” promoting world peace when Juan Antonio Samaranch was the head of the IOC. Samaranch was (literally)an unrepentant Fascist who served Francisco Franco in Spain.

  • Laura_M

    For the most part, whenever Canada acknowledges or showcases any First Nations culture, it’s more of a way of saying “see how great and multicultural and enlightened we are” than any real show of respect for the people for which these cultures are their heritage and part of their way of life, and not exotic or unusual. Until we start to show real respect to them, any use of the traditions of any of the Native cultures here can’t be anything but an insult. The opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics aren’t an exception.
    I like my country. I like living here. But wow, our society is still so racist that it makes my skin crawl—especially since times like this, when we use Native traditions to pretend that we’re living in a multicultural paradise, make it so easy for so many people to pretend that racism doesn’t exist here anymore.

  • besswestern

    Usually, the Olympics are a take or leave it situation for me, with the exceptions of figure skating and gymnastics. However, this year my Olympics experience is colored by the participation of my favorite teacher’s granddaughter. Katherine Reutter is an Olympic skater. Her grandmother, Fern Doublin, is a retired teacher from Missouri. As a middle schooler, I remember vividly how she discussed with our class the way the word “bitch” made her feel. She openly discussed her double mastectomy with us. She taught us the importance of things such as personal responsibility and diversity, while still maintaining strict guidelines regarding sentence structure and the use of alliteration. Forced to retire early by our school district in order to keep her benefits package, she then moved with her husband to a more rural area of Missouri. She noticed a huge need in her community for adult learning, and was the driving force behind opening an adult learning center. She helps people learn to read, to speak English, to write a letter and how to use the computer, among other things.
    When I watch the Olympics this week, I will be thinking of Ms. Doublin, as I cheer on her granddaughter, who I am sure was raised with many of those same feminist principles that she instilled in my class. Go, Katherine!!!

  • besswestern

    Excuse me if this is a re-post…I think I erased my earlier comment somehow!
    Usually the Olympics is something I will watch if I am in front of a tv and gymnastics or ice skating is on. I find it elitist often, and definitely sexist. However, this year the Olympics means more to me.
    My favorite teacher, and one of my earliest feminist heroes, has a granddaughter on the Olympic speed skating team. Katherine Reutter’s grandmother, Fern Doublin, is an amazing person. I remember vividly her discussion of how the word “bitch” made her feel, and what it meant. When we spoke about illness, she talked to our class candidly about her double mastectomy. She taught us about diversity and feminism, while strictly enforcing rules of sentence structure and the proper use of alliteration. When our school district forced her and many other teachers into early retirement so they didn’t lose the benefits they had worked so hard for, Ms. Doublin didn’t stop teaching. She moved to the Ozarks from St. Louis, and found a need for education in the surrounding communities. She immediately helped open an adult learning center, where they teach computer skills, English, letter writing, and where they help people get their GEDs.
    So when I watch the Olympics this year, I will be rooting for Katherine Reutter, who no doubt learned many of the same life lessons Ms. Doublin taught to me.