For many years I used to watch our national football team’s matches with beating heart. That is no more the case now. I stopped caring about our national team eight years ago when I was sickened by the attitudes of some of our (former) football stars who would put their income and privileges above "the honour of the country". Now I don’t even know the name of a single player in the national squad. Now I can understand the Libyan Leader Muammar al-Gaddafi who, in an old interview with a French magazine, sarcastically likened football to cockfighting. But Gaddafi later changed his mind. When Morocco qualified for the second round in the Mexico 1986 FIFA World Cup, Gaddafi gave a generous gift to the Moroccan team, which was the first African and Arab squad to have gone that far.
Libya too has its own national football team, and Lybians –like Moroccans– still love football. In the 9th Pan Arab Games, 1999 (Jordan), a football match between Libya and Iraq ended with bloodshed in the stadium and in the streets of Amman. Neither side wanted to lose their honour.
Football, which began as a game to be played for fun, became, among other things, a source of honour for the winners and dishonour for the losers. And so did Tour de France, which began as "a publicity measure (...) to promote sales of the rival L'Auto, ancestor to the present L'équipe."
In the last edition of Tour de France, a Luxemburgian journalist at the end of his career shed tears of joy when Kim Kirchen became the first Luxemburgian cyclist ever to have won a stage in this prestigious competition. It was the Spanish Sastre , not Kim, who finally carried off the coveted trophey. On his return to his hometown, Sastre received a hero's welcome.
Many Italians felt great when they saw Riccardo Ricco (Cobra), an Italian cyclist, win more than a stage in this Tour de France, but when he was excluded from the competition for doping, those same Italians called him a traitor.
When an athlete wins a gold medal in an international competition, the national anthem is played in honour of his /her country. Perhaps that’s why some states "buy" star athletes to compete in their name. But does it do an athlete’s country honour when he/she cheats in order to get a gold medal ? Presiden Bush said Marion Jones set a bad example to American youth.
Does a country really need to associate itself with the sporting achievement of one of its individual citizens ? Recently, regional and international media featured a Saudi youth planting a Saudi flag on top of the Everest. What if that Saudi national had lost his life before achieving his aim ? Would anybody have cared about him ? A K2 survivor was quoted as saying : "I now realise that they're all dead, they're all dead (...) I'm at base camp. I'm truly happy, to be here finally and to be alive."
Why ? Why all this ? Is it wise to lose one’s life in such a way ? Does a small country like the Islamic Republic of Mauritania need daring soldiers to carry out a coup d'etat, or teniss stars to compete with Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova?
Ethiopia was honoured by its legendary long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, but then there’s still hunger –not to say famine– in a great part of the country. Argentina was honoured by its football stars, such as Maradona, but then Argentinians took to the streets brandishing empty saucepans.
I once read about a "World Snail Racing Championships" in which each competing snail wore the colours of a different national flag. Is this pure fun, or rather a subtle form of national extremism ? Is it reasonable for a nation to make its honour conditional on the outcome of a football match, a long-distance race, or a snail race?
Some states have brought the spirit of competition into another arena : Faith. While Côte d'Ivoire was facing growing economic problems, the late Félix Houphouët-Boigny, with the help of his sister, constructed the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, the largest Christian church in the world, at a cost of $300 million. Now Algeria has just signed with a German-Tunisian group a contract to to build a mosque with the tallest minaret ever. Will the Guinness World Records become more sacred than the Koran? One shudders at the thought.
Gossipers have alleged that the 2008 Olympic Games are being used to tighten the grip of the Communist Party. Only Allah knows whether this is true. However, cool-headed Chinese analysts claim that the Chinese people have been waiting for this chance for more than a century to improve their image in the world. After being humiliated by the Japanese occupation of China's northeast and other historical happenings, the Chinese now want to show the world that they are worthy of the world's respect and admiration.
It is easy to understand the anger of the people who were moved from their homes to make way for the Olympic Games venues. And it's equally easy to understand the excitement of millions of Chinese people about their country hosting the Games. These Chinese are happy getting such attention, such a unique opportunity to present their culture and civilization to the rest of the world. As proof, the Beijing dwellers accepted without a murmur their government's dress code DO's and DONT's during the Games. The international media featured thousands of Chinese citizens from all over the country waiting days, sleeping on the streets, just for the sake of getting a ticket for the Games. Millions of Chinese turned out in many Chinese cities to see the torch. But, wait a minute! What about money?
Normally, many states (create and then) exploit people's interest in sports because sports provide advertisers with a golden chance, and advertisement helps economic growth, which, in turn, helps the State coffers. This is neither totally false nor totally true. South Korea and Mexico, for example, suffered economic disasters even after hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 1986 FIFA World Cup respectively. Besides, China has spent $35-40 billion on improved infrastructure on these Games. So it doesn't look as if China needs the Olympic Games for money. Now even China-based international correspondents are increasingly stressing the fact that it's more a matter of national pride than anything else. They are now saying that the Games are meant to bring international prestige and recognition to the Chinese nation. So all China has to do now is charm the world. Once China has bedazzled the world with its magical Opening Ceremony , it will also dazzle them with the number of gold medals its athletes will harvest. China will not be measured only against the United States, Western Europe and Russia, but also against poor countries such as Barbados and Haiti. Is it China's fault if it entered the competition with more than 600 athletes while Iraq, for example, had only two participants? Is it China's fault if tiny states came to the Games to compete with the giants?
Mongolia, (North & South) Korea, Vietnam, Nepal and Burma, which are taking part in the Beijing Games as sovereign states, were all at some point in history part of the Chinese Empire. The next Olympiad will be held in Great Britain, whose nationals used to put at the entrance to one of their parks on Chinese soil a sign that read: "Dogs and Chinese Not Allowed". There's absolutely nothing abnormal about this, though. All nations go through ups and downs. Great Britain, on which the Sun Never Set when China bowed to Western powers, is now a much smaller power. Portugal, whose sailors were once the masters of much of the world's seas, is now much, much smaller than Britain. Paris, which hosted the 1924 Summer Olympics, was then invaded by Hitler's troops. Berlin, which hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics, was then invaded by the Allies. All these nations are now anxious to see their national anthem performed at the Beijing Games as many times as possible. In sum, whatever the state we're in, it's never irreversible. Every nation has its hour of glory, and China has every right to show off its power and civilization at its hour of glory. We all tend to pride ourselves on our achievements. All that is preditible: "Know that the life of this world is only play, and idle talk, and pageantry, and boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children; as the likeness of vegetation after rain, whereof the growth is pleasing to the husbandman, but afterward it drieth up and thou seest it turning yellow then it becometh straw. And in the Hereafter there is grievous punishment, and (also) forgiveness from Allah and His good pleasure, whereas the life of the world is but matter of illusion." (Al-Hadid : 20) "See how We prefer one above another, and verily the Hereafter will be greater in degrees and greater in preferment." (Al-Isra : 21)
Now the question is, what's the use of a country's honour if this country's individual citizens lose their own honour?
I am not going to talk about dictatorships. But in Japan -an unquestionably democratic state- "Japanese lawyers are rallying behind a postman whose boss told him he had to shave off his moustache to comply with grooming standards for letter carriers," according to The Age OddSpot. Ben is one of those who told the story of that Italian bride whose wedding-dress came apart at the seams and fell to the ground in front of her future husband and wedding guests, leaving her half naked. These two people were understandably hurt in their dignity, all the more so since their ordeals made worldwide headlines. But there are millions of anonymous people who are hurt in their dignity on a daily basis. In many African, Caribbean and Asian countries, some of which will certainly get gold medals at the Beijing Games, there are so many people humbled by poverty and hunger. Will these people be honoured with a handful of gold medals?
Another question is, will the American Subprime victims be interested at all in the current Olympic Games? While President Bush went to Beijing to support the American athletes, who are supposed to honour their country, there will still be too many American citizens who will continue to feel that they have been cheated by some of their fellow Americans, who had tricked them into taking on risky home loans and signing mortgages beyond their means.
Sometimes, people do harm to their own families. The President of Austria as well as many Austrian people felt ashamed when the world came to know the story of the Austrian father who had kept his own daughter locked in the cellar of his home for more than two decades.
Yet another question is, do athletes really care about the honour of their country as much as they do about their personal glory? That doesn't seem to always be the case--given the innumerable cases of doping, such as those mentioned above. Why so, one wonders? It's because man wants to be at the top wherever there is room for competition. Even when a country's security is at stake, you'd find the soldiers of that country more worried about their medals, promotion and worldly acquisitions than the honour of their country. Read, for example, David Irving's The Trail of the Fox, a biography of German general Erwin Rommel. Read any soldier's autobiography, any politician's memoirs, it's always the I-was-I-did story. Even those who used rape as a weapon against their enemy will have something to boast about.
"Beautified for mankind is love of the joys (that come) from women and offspring, and stored up heaps of gold and silver, and horses branded (with their mark), and cattle and land. That is comfort of the life of the world. Allah! With Him is a more excellent abode. Say: Shall I inform you of something better than that? For those who keep from evil, with their Lord, are Gardens underneath which rivers flow, and pure companions, and contentment from Allah. Allah is Seer of His bondmen, Those who say: Our Lord! Lo! we believe. So forgive us our sins and guard us from the punishment of Fire; The steadfast, and the truthful, and the obedient, those who spend (and hoard not), those who pray for pardon in the watches of the night." (Al-i'Imran : 14-17)
"O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware." (Al-Hujurat : 13)
"Whoso obeyeth Allah and the messenger, they are with those unto whom Allah hath shown favor, of the Prophets and the saints and the martyrs and the righteous. The best of company are they! Such is the bounty of Allah, and Allah sufficeth as knower." (An-Nisaa : 69-70)
"For this let (all) those strive who strive for bliss." (Al-Mutaffifoon : 26)
One last question: do all people care about their national stars? Well, the legendary Pele (!) has recently been attacked and robbed at gunpoint.
"Then praise be to Allah, Lord of the heavens and Lord of the earth, the Lord of the Worlds. And unto Him (alone) belongeth majesty in the heavens and the earth, and He is the Mighty, the Wise." (Al-Jathiya : 36-37)
Mohamed Ali Lagouader