Review: Nationalism on the World Stage: Cultural Performance at the Olympic Games

This review originally appeared in Nations and Nationalism 19:2 (2013), 401-3.

Philip A. D’Agati, Nationalism on the World Stage: Cultural Performance at the Olympic Games. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2011, 205pp. £19.15 (pbk).

Arriving less than a year before the London Olympics, Philip A. D’Agati’s book on nationalism and performance at the Olympic Games is timely. D’Agati, as a political scientist, seeks to show how the national organisers of Winter and Summer Games create and redefine national identities through performance, concentrating on the contemporary Olympic set piece of the opening ceremony. The richness of these ceremonies as a source of data on the construction of national identity, and the potential to theorise them with reference to sociological and anthropological understandings of events and festivals, will be apparent to any nationalism scholar who has spent more than a few minutes watching what D’Agati, following the work of David Guss on Venezuela, rightly interprets as ‘cultural performance’ (p. 1). D’Agati’s research questions thus have the potential to add to our understandings of this significant biennial event.

Nationalism on the World Stage aims to prove that Olympics and other events are appropriate locations for identity performance and definition and that organisers, acting as rational ‘goal-seeking individuals’ (p. 64), intentionally select strategies for accomplishing this. The aim is refined into a focus on opening ceremonies and on organisers’ decisions both to present nationalist imagery at all and to decide which nationalist imagery to present, bearing in mind the twin audiences (domestic and global) of any Olympics. A number of fascinating case studies are presented, such as the construction of a Mediterranean rather than Iberian narrative for the foundation of Barcelona in 1992, the efforts of Norway to inscribe itself alongside Greece as an originator of Olympic traditions, and the tension between pan-Yugoslav and republican/national identities in the pageantry of Sarajevo 1984.

This slim volume chooses its disagreements carefully. D’Agati explicitly has not set out to write a critique of the Olympics or of the nationalist uses of Olympic performances: ‘[w]hat has typically been looked down upon, as an inappropriate and damaging use of the Games [the use of opening ceremonies for political purposes], can be quite healthy for a society’ (p. 7). His standpoint is thus implicitly Durkheimian: these performances can help to build the nation, bring cohesion into social life, and even enable ‘a society to symbolically heal by reintegrating once-peripheralized elements’ (p. 42). The author spends some time taking issue with the possibility of a structuralist approach to the study of opening ceremonies, but does not discuss other, more critical paradigms through which it would have been equally possible to analyse these performances: the spectacle in the work of Guy Debord, the simulacrum of Jean Baudrillard, or Judith Butler’s feminist understanding of performativity. Students would have benefited from a mention of these approaches even if only to refute them.

The absence of critical secondary literature is most keenly felt in the final chapters on representations of national cores and peripheries, where D’Agati discusses how the Calgary 1988, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 ceremonies attempted to complicate the identities of what had traditionally been imagined as white settler nations. For 2000, for instance, he states that ‘[t]he Australian government was in a process of deconstructing what had been a racist past that separated Australian society into a core western society and a peripheral aboriginal counterpart’, yet the account does not refer to arguments that – despite official efforts at performative reconciliation – Australia continues to have a racist present. In the discussion of Atlanta, similarly, racial inequality and violence appears completely displaced into the past. The lead times of academic publishing mean that this book may have been in press before critiques of the appropriation of First Nations imagery by the organisers of the Vancouver Games emerged,[1] but similar criticisms were made during the Calgary Games, when the Lubicon Lake Cree boycotted a Shell-sponsored Games-related exhibition of First Nations artefacts.[2] Even if the author considers these perspectives unfounded, the account would be stronger if the reader heard about them.

A further problem is the author’s handling of nationalism itself. It is unfortunate that other authors in sports politics are criticised for paying little attention to nationalism when the book’s own approach to nationalism is itself limited. There are very good grounds for applying ‘invention of tradition’ and ‘imagined communities’ theories to Olympic opening ceremonies, as the author has done. It is not clear, however, what the author imagines the nation is: his definitions and their theoretical underpinnings (Fredrik Barth and Thomas Hylland Eriksen) could relate equally to ethnicity, while concepts of state and power take a back seat. Despite depoliticised references to Gramscian hegemony, theoretical linkages between identity definition and political power are not made clear, and curiously there is no reference to Michael Billig’s theory of banal nationalism, which contains highly relevant observations about international sports competition.[3] The value of this book is thus for policy-makers and practitioners, for whom the documentation of organisers’ solutions to particular national problems may be useful. Scholars of nationalism will require more.

1 See e.g., Margot Francis, ‘The Imaginary Indian: Unpacking the Romance of Domination’, in Power and Everyday Practices (ed. Deborah Brock, Rebecca Raby and Mark P Thomas): 252–76 (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2012).

2 See Moira McLoughlin, ‘Of Boundaries and Borders: First Nations’ History in Museums’, Canadian Journal of Communication 18:3 (1993).

3 Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995).

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