While the symbolism of the Olympic Torch this year has become fiercely contested, events in Canberra today made it clear that the civil religion of nationalism has triumphed in the contest. The supposed "Olympic spirit" just didn't cut the mustard when Tibetans in exile sought to use the extended perambulations of the Olympic torch to draw attention to longstanding grievances with the Chinese hegemony in their region and the spirit of affronted nationalism was aroused.
Evidence for the triumph of nationalism?
1. Several thousand Chinese waving flags and chanting patriotic slogans along the shores of Lake Burleigh Griffin - television broadcasts might have given the impression that Canberra was populated by flagwaving Chinese. (This might be good tourist publicity in China, a place to go where you can feel at home, but how it would advance the attractiveness of Canberra as an Australian destination in the rest of the world is something of a mystery to me)
2. The media performances of the Chief Minister of the ACT, John Stanhope, a progressive by ALP standards, normally sensitive to the claims of the underdog, was well and truly on the back foot defending the Chinese display of chauvinism on the grounds that Australians got pretty nationalist on big sporting occasions. "We do nationalism pretty well" he commented. As a defence of what happened in Canberra, with several incidents of native Canberrans being physically intimidated this was pretty weak, but as a Freudian slip about the character of the Olympics it was I thought fairly revealing.
3. A TV interview with a former sporting hero, Robert de Castella saying what we needed more of this spirit in the world the way it is today - announced against a visual background of large numbers of people waving Chinese flags. What spirit he had in mind and how it related to the clear reality of the Chinese Government pressing the appeal of nationalism and using the Olympics as a vehicle for purposes of advancing national prestige and claims to maintain the mandate of heaven was far from clear.
The response by ACT government officials, civic leaders and people with a stake in the sporting and Olympic establishment associated with organising the Canberra torch relay has been a stunning demonstration of the triumph of wishful thinking over reality, in proclaiming the revival of the torch relay as an Olympic event beyond the reach of political disturbance.
The entire episode has had a decidedly surreal character.
Perhaps that is not surprising, considering that the sacred was on the loose but no one was prepared to acknowledge that that was in fact what was happening. Civil religions were in competition for control of what each hoped would be an efficaciously powerful symbol to advance their cause. Australia is supposed to be a secular society and the sacred cannot be explicitly acknowledged and named as such. But if you happen to get in the way and raise questions it will not be a confortable place to be.
Result of the contest for the symbol of the torch on a sunny autumn day in Canberra - in football terms I reckon Nationalism 3 beat the Olympic spirit 0 with lots of police present to ensure order was kept.
In a postscript ...
Best gestures of peaceful protest on the day came from some Tibetan supporters - Senator Bob Brown of the Greens who hired an aerial signwriter to sketch "Free Tibet" against the Canberra skyline and organisers who floated a sign with similar sentiments attached to balloons above the crowds. As a minority without power they had no chance of winning a contest but as dissenting minorities often do they have helped unveil that which would otherwise have remained hidden.