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.

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