Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mega-Events and Nationalism: The 2008 Olympic Torch Relay

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mega-Events and Nationalism: The 2008 Olympic Torch Relay

Article excerpt

The term "mega-event" is, in a way, a misnomer, because any given mega-event is really an aggregate of many events that occur over an allotted period of time. Such is the case of the Olympic Games. Included within the 2008 Beijing Olympics were a series of international and domestic events titled the Olympic Torch Relay. The international relay was designed to course through major cities on six continents. These events became sites where the tightly scripted relay performance was vulnerable. Activists attended them to protest China's geopolitical affairs in Tibetan regions of China, Sudan, and other places. In response, the Chinese media and Chinese patriots drew from the discourse of "national humiliation" to defend China's pride and territorial claims. The symbolism of the Olympic Games and relay was designed to fashion a particular geographical and historical understanding of China. The domestic relay brought the torch to every province of China, performing the geo-body of the Chinese nation in all corners of the country. However, both the spatial extension of the mega-event and its stilted performance threatened to unravel its organizers' messaging. Online reaction to the formulaic discourses of the Chinese state, Chinese official media, and Western media reveals how the messaging of the Olympic Torch Relay mega-event was compromised even without physical disruption.

Although mega-events have the potential to become platforms for political ideology, the Olympics makes a poor platform because of its indissoluble connection to nationalism. Nationalism lacks any universal logic or unified theory and so it doesn't sit comfortably in the category of "ideology" (Anderson 2006). This paper explores how in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese nationalism was deployed both in the discourse of the relay mega-event and in media and public responses to relay disruptions. Although the Chinese state has attempted to resuscitate a managed form of nationalism in recent decades, multiple Chinese nationalisms have emerged in contemporary China (Zheng 1999).

Furthermore, other Chinese citizens responded to the relay with skepticism towards the relay's geopolitical and nationalist slant. One explanation for this phenomenon is that mega-event promoters and the media outlets that cover the events tend to repeat political sloganeering to the point that, due to the event's scale and duration, such language begins to strain. The very oversaturation during the event period of repeated images and language of the Games led some Chinese to interpret the Olympics in ironic, playful, or politically resistant ways. Following the studies of Alexei Yurchak and his colleagues on humor in late-socialist Russia and late-liberalist America, as well as theorists of contemporary Chinese online humor, this paper explores the possibilities of satirical humor in compromising mega-event promoters' attempts to propagate geopolitical visions and territorial claims (Yurchak 1997, 2006; Boyer and Yurchak 2010).

MEGA-EVENTS, THE OLYMPICS, AND NATIONALISM

The Olympic Games are among the most prominent of global mega-events. J. R. Brent Ritchie was among the first to bring "major sports events" under the banner of the mega-event. He proposed to that these events could be studied for their political effects. Among the positive outcomes that organizers could pursue were the "enhanced international recognition of [a] region and its values," and the "propagation of political values held by [a] government and/or population" (Ritchie 1984, 4). More recently, in an analysis of World Expos and the Olympic Games, Maurice Roche argued that by way of these global mega-events, cultural elites attempt to create an ideological product for the audience's consumption (Roche 2000). Drawing from Hobsbawm and Ranger's work on the invention of tradition, Roche proposes that the pomp of mega-events effectively creates a sense of pleasure for its audience, and the dramaturgical experience of the mega-event allows the realization of elite ideology (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1992). …

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