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Five Rings after the Cold War: Cascadian Olympians and Horizontal Comradeship

I have heard people ask, “Why should I care about the Olympics?” The simple answer is that you don’t have to care. In fact, I was not really planning on keeping up with the Olympics this summer. There were a few sports I wanted to see. I particularly enjoy watching water polo and soccer. Handball has also caught my interest in recent years. My family has a history with track, and many of those events are rather short, so I watch those as well.
Now, my reason for watching the Olympics is based purely on sport.  However, it was not always that way.

When I was little, I remember watching the Olympics with my family and cheering for the United States against the Soviet Union. It was important to my family, and most of the nation, to cheer on the good guys against what we believed were bad guys. The reality of course was that they were all just athletes. There was no concrete reason for us to believe we were somehow superior simply because our side got more medals than the other. In a way, the Olympics filled a basic need for tribalism.

Even though most of the nation would never meet an Olympic medalist face to face, they were one of “us.” Our basic tribal instincts had been hijacked by nationalism. For some people, this is still the case. As I got older and the Soviet Union became less menacing and eventually became a dissolved union, the Olympic nationalism inside me fizzled. NBC loves to play up the nationalism still, almost exclusively featuring United States competitors and framing almost every competition in the USA narrative. That sort of broadcasting rings hollow to my adult self.

A few people I know celebrated that the United States had the highest medal count in this Olympics. I quietly noted on the side that the combined medal count of the former Soviet states was 143 to the USA 104. Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan combined to get 115 medals. Had the cold war mentality and the USSR persisted, this Olympics would have been a narrative of defeat rather than triumph.
I instead chose a different reason to celebrate. About a week before the Olympics started, a thread popped up on the internet site Reddit titled, “2012 Cascadia Olympians.” In that thread was an entire list of people that would be representing Cascadia if it were in existence. No less than 93 athletes.

My first reaction was, “that’s neat.”  I was no more excited than usual. However, it stirred something inside of me that I had not felt since the summer Olympics in 1988 when I was a small boy. My tribal instinct was kicking back into gear. It was a feeling that I had come to be almost ashamed of because of how xenophobic I had been during my child hood at the end of the Cold War.

By the time the Olympics was in high gear, I threw my inhibitions aside and bled blue, white and green. I found myself checking updates, looking to see if an athlete had triumphed or fallen short. When the dust finally settled and the torch had been put out, our Cascadian athletes ended up with 21 total medals 8 of which were won individually.

Of the individual medals we got 2 gold, 2 silver and 4 bronze. I say “we” because there is a sense of pride that comes with finding out that decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton was born in Portland. There is a sense of familiarity to learn that Nathan Adrian, who won the 100m freestyle swimming event as an underdog, is from Bremerton.  I feel a sense of community when watching Ryan Cochrane swim the 1500m freestyle knowing that I’ve walked the same streets in Victoria that he has.

It’s the community side of our tribal instincts that make the Olympics great. It’s knowing that the person you are cheering for may never meet you, but you just don’t care because you have a connection to them.  It’s recognizing that you cheer for someone because they are from where you are from. You’ve walked on some of the same streets. You’ve eaten at some of the same restaurants. You’ve been to their high school and didn’t even know it until that moment when they win a medal.

That’s my new answer for the question “Why should I care?” I don’t care about the Olympics because of nationalism anymore. I don’t care about it simply because I love sports either. I watch the Olympics now because I am looking for members of my community.  People of Cascadia.
By Nate Jensen