[Letter to the editor]Global athletes and blind nationalismI recently heard someone say in reference to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays American Major League baseball team that they should rename themselves the “South Korean Devil Rays,” due to the three Korean players on the team. The following commentary is about the blind nationalism that accompanies sports.
Even as a joke, what is behind this comment? Do three Korean players contribute to the team substantially more than the other members, including the three Dominicans on the team? Or is it to position South Korea internationally?
Much has already been said about sports and nationalism. Nations go to great lengths in funding international athletic prowess, and have concealed more urgently fundable problems, like illiteracy and hunger. Others have done well to quell domestic political turmoil through the image of a cohesive unit of players rallying under the flag.
Nothing seems to show a semblance of stability better than a well conceived sports team, domestic or international; theorists too have noted the tremendous domestic value in games and festivals. Through these, an otherwise heterogeneous, possibly contentious mass of politics, ideologies, spiritualities and the like are allowed, momentarily, to form into one great singular body to rally behind the fantasy of unity the team symbolizes.
We hear a lot about globalization in Korea. On baseball teams there are players who migrate between countries. Different styles and techniques flow and mix with others; different economics and the status of playing internationally may be an unconscious motivation to play differently. A Korean, Dominican or Cuban player does not unleash supposed irreducible national or cultural qualities wherever he goes. Many changes in his life (home, pay, coaching, esteem) affect changes in playing style. [An athlete playing abroad] is a subject in flux.
But the claim “South Korean Devil Rays” is precisely anti-global ― it’s sectarian, in fact. Such a comment is predicated upon projecting onto a hybridized assemblage (such as a modern day multi-cultural, multi-ethnic American baseball team) the fantasy of something uniquely and irreducibly Korean. Not only can it be proved untrue, but also, as a nationalistic comment ― like many nationalistic comments ― it comes from insecurity over one’s own international relevance. And in its eagerness to position the nation internationally while animating the national audience, it ends up misrepresenting situations, being very selective in its analysis or failing to analyze at all. Hence, the “blindness” in nationalism I described above.
Take the example of Kim Yu-na, the World Grand Prix figure skating gold medalist. Like any foreign player on a major league baseball team, she receives training in a foreign country with foreign coaches and choreographers. Undoubtedly, the people who train and guide them are also changed by the qualities that each of these athletes bring. What we have here is a global exchange that equally affects all involved. It makes little sense to halt it in the name of some illusory essential “Korean-ness,” “Cuban-ness” or “Venezuelan-ness.” Kim Yu-na is a global athlete ― in a sense a product of various efforts and multiple sources. To say this is in no way to diminish her great talent, only to place it in a realistic context.
In the 1936 Berlin Olympics Japan claimed the victories of Korean marathoners Sohn Kee-chung and Nam Sung-yong, who were forced to compete under the Japanese flag. Many of us are aware of the contempt that most Koreans hold for Japan over this. So why should Koreans claim as their own a team with Dominicans, Mexicans, Americans, Japanese and Venezuelans alongside its three South Koreans? What Japan did to the marathoners was unjust. But isn’t taking for one’s own [athletes] best described as multiple sourced the mirror image of what was done to the Korean marathoners?
Omar Abdolall, an English teacher, Mapo district, Seoul