I’ve been thinking a lot about patriotism and nationalism recently, based largely on the confluence of the current political election in this country, Brexit and European Union overseas, the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio, and the fact that today’s first stage of the Tour de France finishes at Utah Beach, one of the D-Day landing beaches during World War II.
I had the honor of representing the United States as an athlete, and the honor of leading athletes in international competition as an Olympic Team Coach. I’ve also experienced being an American athlete racing professionally in international fields all over the world. In all of these environments, there are varying degrees of both national pride and nationalism, but not always in the ways you might think.[blog_promo promo_categories=”coaching” ids=”” /]
The National Team
There is nothing like pulling on a National Team jersey for the first time. Being selected to represent your country in competition is a huge milestone for an athlete, in any sport. You’ve been selected to compete, not just for your own glory, but as a representative of your country. I have to admit that I was not a huge patriot growing up. I loved my country, but love of country wasn’t a central part of who I was. But putting on a National Team jersey as a junior cyclist brought with it a surge of national pride. I felt a responsibility to raise my performance to a higher level because I was representing more than just myself. That hits home most when the stuff hits the fan and all you want to do is quit or back off.
Nationalism is not something I experienced during my years racing for or coaching with the National Team. Patriotism or national pride is defined as love of country, whereas nationalism is unity based on shared background, language, or culture. Nationalism has the sharper edge of “us vs. them”. I raced extensively in Eastern Europe during the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s, where you might have expected animosity from Russian or East German teams. But it was never like in the movies. There was no evil Russian Coach or brutish East German athlete vowing to crush us. Nor was there any of that sentiment within our team or coming from our coaches. We were competitors and humans. We all suffered the same way in the races, we all bled when we crashed, and we all put on our kits the same way the following day.[blog_promo promo_categories=”camp” ids=”” /]
The line between patriotism and nationalism blurs a bit more when it comes to the Olympics Games, but mostly for the people back home. For the competitors, representing your country in international competition is not new, but the Olympics are still a different animal. There is an increased sense of responsibility to be your best, not just for yourself, but for everyone who got you there and is rooting for you. And I’m not just talking about your family and coaches, but your third grade teacher and fans you don’t even know. Most of all, though, there’s a responsibility to all the athletes you competed against who were not selected for the team. They put their heart and soul into making the Olympic Team, just like you did, and you’re the one who is there. As an athlete and a coach, that was something I never took lightly.
The World Championships is complicated, especially for professional cyclists. You’re there racing for your national team, but you are racing with and against riders who are on the same trade teams. And like the Olympics but unlike professional racing, not all teams have equal representation, which leads to strange alliances and unpredictable allegiances. If you have a small team you can’t control the race, and everyone knows not everyone in the race is really a contender to win. Smaller teams sometimes work together to level the playing field against larger teams, and sometimes trade team allegiances enter into the tactics as well.
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In the professional peloton there is plenty of national pride but very little nationalism. There may have been more nationalism when the teams were more homogenous in terms of nationality, but now all the teams are so international that it’s a moot point. Nevertheless, national pride does play a role. The French riders really want to win on Bastille Day. The first stage of the 1986 Tour de France was on July 4th, a point that did not go unnoticed to those of us on the first American team to race the Tour. And this year the first stage of the Tour de France finishes at Utah Beach in Normandy, a place of reverence to generations of Americans.
As we head into a summer flooded with messages about borders and nations and competition, it is my hope that national pride wins out over nationalism. National pride has the ability to elevate performance, to bring out the best in people and in competitors. Nationalism, on the other hand, has much darker undertones. I have long believed that athletic competition among nations yields more understanding and camaraderie than it does conflict. By the end of a competition, it is virtually impossible to view your adversary as anything but a fellow athlete.
Have a Great Weekend and Safe 4th of July!
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
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