Thrift vs Patriotism: The Nationalistic Debate over Olympians’ Clothing

The Olympics may be over, but cultural critique is forever.

Before the start of the Olympic Games in London, there was a bit of a controversy state-side over the uniforms that the U.S. team was going to be wearing to the Opening Ceremonies. Apparently they were made in China. Shocking. The mass media had a field day with this, and politicians weighed in, everyone up in arms about the fact that the uniforms should be made in the United States.

Meanwhile, back in America, this is still a capitalist country that participates in a global marketplace. Of course the uniforms are going to be made in China: it’s cheaper! This made me wonder if, had the uniforms been made in the United States, there would have been a controversy about the expense of outfitting our athletes for the Games. Because you know they would have been pretty darn spendy.

What we have here are coexisting, competing yet related sets of values, ideologies even: the virtue of thrift vs. the virtue of patriotism. At this historical-cultural moment in the United States, the virtue of thrift is tied closely to the recession discourse and the “Jobs” trope people have been hammering for the past year(s). On the other hand, the virtue of patriotism [read: anti-China-ism] mandates that we buy U.S. made goods. This virtue is tied to the Jobs trope and the recession, as well. That hypothetical backlash would have been about excessive spending and anti-American consumer practices that “steal jobs” from hard-working stiffs. So basically, in this climate of competing ideologies, consumers can’t win. They will always be doing something antithetical to mainstream American discourse, which draws upon currently-held beliefs. (Those traitors!) This transcends to the larger scale as well, where Olympic officials can’t win, either. There is no right choice, because either one offends a deep-seated and currently harped-on ideology in America.

So you see, there’s no winning. Or rather, there is a winner, at least rhetorically, and that winner is America. (It’s also the loser, based on my argument, but the discourse will always position itself as drawing attention to how America should be winning. Maybe the real winner is capitalism.) This whole controversy–or rather, both of these controversies, the real and the hypothetical–is wrapped in the always-justifying “virtue” of Nationalism, which is really what the Olympic Games are all about.*

And the coverage of the Games, before, during, and after, is all about drumming up the controversies and human-interest stories that can be squeezed out of the sweaty towels of the competitors and turned into profit. There will always be hand wringing and finger-pointing. Newscasters gotta eat, too. Yay, capitalism!

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*Side-note: In grad school during my Transnational Ritual class, I made the mistake of pointing out that the Olympic Games totally mirrors the hegemonic system of nationalism around which the world is currently organized, man. In response, my professor basically called me childish for not just accepting this as the status quo. (He had a hard-on for the Olympics because it was his “field-site,” and he couldn’t really take any analysis of it that he hadn’t thought of himself, especially not a kommie-Gramscian one. …and I may have aided in his dressing-down of me by sporting pig-tails at the time. But this does not alter the fact that he was still an asshole.)

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4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary, Media

4 responses to “Thrift vs Patriotism: The Nationalistic Debate over Olympians’ Clothing

  1. I’m not sure there would have been too much criticism if the uniforms had been made here, precisely because that’s what people would like at this point. You point out, however, how ridiculous any fervor in media coverage of such a thing is when the vast majority of all clothing sold isn’t made here, and they do/should know that.

    It’s also strange that one of the things that made clothing made by Americans hold less appeal to emerging generations was that it was stuff that was distinctly not cool. ‘Such was also not supposed to be very well-made’ was a big idea that rang throughout the media, probably most popularly on scripted TV shows. The brands that were cool outsourced the heck out of their stuff.

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    • To your first point, I’m not sure, either, but I think there’d have been a possibility if it had been a slow news day, especially since the competing value of saving money is also something people really want right now. But I do think you’re right, overall, given that the Olympics coverage in America is mostly about patriotism and proving that “we’re #1!”

      Your second paragraph got me thinking all about the history of where things are made and coolness. It would be really interesting to do a “study” of how the coolness factor arises–what makes a brand “cool–and how that might or might not be related to the methods of production, among them where a commodity is made.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  2. Gleb

    ** Well, I liked your pig tails. Not that I remember this specifically. But I like the idea of having liked your pig tails. Does that count as nostalgia? (see how I turned a personal comment into a blog-relevant one?)

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