Olympian Angst

'Germans longed for Olympic medals as validation, but were surprised at how London rose to the occasion'

National identity, that necessarily ephemeral attempt to evaluate a nation’s assets, is nowhere as tied up with sports as it is in Germany. Football is usually the main focus: not a single European Championship or World Cup goes by without discussing how comfortable Germans are in their own skin. Does putting a little German flag on your Smart car mean you are at ease with your country’s past, a closet neo-Nazi, or both? I can hardly think of a more useless debate — what could a bunch of flaxen-haired men or women jogging around on a pitch tell me about a concept as individual and complex as identity?

But the usual debate failed to materialise during this year’s Olympics. Or rather, it took on a different form: not so much navel-gazing about identity as a debate about performance — one which could well influence German politics this autumn.

Among the cheery crowds of London 2012, Germans experienced an underwhelming start to the games. The self-styled “Sportnation” seemed to have been shut out. In the end Germany came fifth in the total medal count and sixth in gold medals, thus not only trailing behind the United States, China and Russia, but also behind Britain and South Korea. Most German commentators put the British success down to Britain’s home advantage or extraordinary triumphs such as that of Mo Farah. In any case, Britain’s array of gold and silver medals wasn’t seen as a sign of a new competitive spirit or ethos of high performance, as it probably would have been interpreted had it been Germany’s success. 

On the German side, however, what was striking was the longing for any form of visible strength, with much marvelling at athletic bodies. Colleagues kept asking me to write up a neat little cultural theory about one particularly well-toned male torso, just because they had had fun watching, say, synchronised swimming. A friend called it a “Riefenstahl-trauma”, after Hitler’s favourite director Leni Riefenstahl, who notoriously filmed the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 

Meanwhile, sport got mixed up with German politics in a very different and altogether less intellectual fashion. News emerged of the neo-Nazi past of Michael Fischer, boyfriend of the Olympic rower Nadja Drygalla, who subsequently left the team. Fischer was a former leading member of the National Socialists in Rostock in the north-east of Germany and a regional parliamentary candidate for the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) last year, but claimed he’d quit the scene before the Olympics, having decided to “stop being a neo-Nazi”. Only weeks later, during a visit to London, he posted a comment on Facebook stating he was taking the right steps towards “international understanding” by sitting “next to blacks and Pakis on the train”.

The case triggered a debate over whether Nadja Drygalla was being unfairly persecuted and subjected to guilt by association, with the Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière defending the young rower, saying her personal life had been intruded on. Others argued she should not have been allowed to compete in the first place because she evidently tolerated her boyfriend’s activities enough to share her life with him, making her unsuited to represent her country. Now, anyone who is familiar with this peculiar milieu in the deprived north-east of Germany, formerly part of the GDR, won’t be too shocked by this story. It is shocking, however, that Fischer’s activities went unnoticed for so long.

The real issue that ties this all together is the insecurity that lies behind it: desperately longing for medals as a kind of validation while rebuffing that very same idea as anachronistic, at odds with a newer, more relaxed patriotism that Germans are meant to have discovered. When it comes to sport, it seems, Germans still indulge in their never-ending quest for identity. Recent events call into question this 21st-century patriotism, which seems strangely contingent upon sporting success and unable to shake free of traces of the older, nastier variety.

“Britain is a country where nothing ever works properly,” a German who teaches at Cambridge University remarked grimly when talking about the London Olympics, “but the British just seem to have got tired of being losers.” In fact, it is fair to say that quite a few Germans were surprised at how London rose to the occasion. 

Maybe there’s an insight into the nature of enlightened patriotism here: tying a nation’s self-image to sporting success is not the same as freeing oneself from the burden of history. Whether Britain comes out as a loser or a winner at a sporting event (or the  export statistics) has perhaps the same short-term effect on the national mood as it does in Germany, but the impact on the deeper sense of self of the two nations seems to be quite different. How long would the new German patriotism survive if we Germans were to see ourselves as losers once more?

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