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National pride runs through Olympics, now as ever

Saturday - 8/11/2012, 7:13pm  ET

Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - Given the depths of his anguish, you might have thought Wu Jingbiao had lost a loved one. Heaving with shame, the double world champion weightlifter wept like a child in the arms of the TV reporter interviewing him.

"I let my country down," he sobbed. "I let the Chinese weightlifting team down. I let everyone who has cared about me down. I am sorry."

He had won the silver medal.

Organizers insist that the Olympic movement exalts individual achievement, not national pride or prowess. Look at the official Olympic website: There is no medal table. The International Olympic Committee doesn't keep count.

Yet nationalism has infused the Olympics _ at its origins in ancient Greece, at its height during the Cold War and still strongly in London in 2012. So it's only natural that at this most global event unfolding in this most multinational of cities, questions of national identity and the very essence of nationhood arise.

Partisan hooligans don't roam Olympic Park, it's true. But a more benign form of patriotism can be found everywhere, from the Legoland of flag-draped apartments in the athletes village to Britain's promotion of fish and chips at Olympic food carts.

That is not by chance. The Olympic opening ceremony alone is designed to show off the host country's cultural and historic greatness, while the parade of nations groups athletes into uniform blocks marching behind flags. The flag-and-anthem ceremonies for every medal drive home the message that personal best and national pride very much share the podium.

Let's not forget the spectators: In the stands, they're draped head to toenail in national flags, waving them, wearing them, wrapping themselves in them. At home, armchair Olympians are fed feel-good stories of national hopefuls and heroes, almost to the exclusion of the actual winners and losers.

"The fascination of the Olympics is that there's a slight mismatch between what the organizers want and what the spectators want," says Martin Polley, an Olympic historian at the University of Southampton. "The IOC values system is clearly very out of step with everybody else's version."

Take the Olympic Charter itself, the statement of the very principles of the games: "The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries," it reads.

Tell that to China's state-controlled Guangming Daily newspaper, which has complained of anti-Chinese bias in the judging of men's gymnastics.

The picture gets complicated when the athletes' own identities come into question.

These days, athletes can swap citizenship almost more easily than corporate sponsors. They marry, move for better access to training or simply accept offers to compete for other nations. The three Kazakh women who won golds in weightlifting are all foreign imports. Only three of the 16 teams in women's table tennis didn't feature a player born in China, or with Chinese roots. A Chinese-born woman played for the Republic of Congo.

While those may be extreme examples, few nations can claim to field exclusively homegrown teams. In Britain, the debate over so-called "plastic Brits," or competitors of convenience, raged for months in the run-up to the games.

Yamile Aldama, a British triple jumper, was pilloried in the local press for competing for her native Cuba in 2000 and Sudan in 2004 and 2008, after her British citizenship application stalled, and finally Britain in 2012. She had hometown support last week in Olympic Stadium, but she managed only fifth place.

By contrast, Mo Farah _ who moved to Britain as a child from his native Somalia and grew up in the British sports system _ was treated as a national hero after he won the 10,000 meters.

"If it wasn't for the crowd and people shouting out my name and putting the Union Jack up, I don't think it would have happened," he said after his win.

Farah followed up Saturday to secure a long-distance double by winning the 5,000 meters.

Shara Proctor competed for Britain as well, even though she lives in Florida and hails from Anguilla, a Caribbean island of 15,500 people close to Puerto Rico. But Anguilla, like several former British colonies, doesn't have an IOC-approved national Olympic committee, leaving her without an Anguillan flag under which to compete.

Four athletes in London faced similar problems because of their nations' unresolved status in the world, and are competing under the Olympic flag. Three hail from Curacao and found themselves in a bind following the 2010 breakup of the Netherlands Antilles. Despite not having an approved hometown flag, they made a memorable entrance at the opening ceremony, dancing, jumping and striking the occasional Usain Bolt-style pose.

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