Reclaiming National Identity Through Sports


Nations often use athletics and athletes to redefine their national identity. In post-Mao China, the bodies of athletes became the image of “new China”—an image of discipline and modernity.

Sports, as well as the body, have always been an important factor of Chinese culture. As Nancy Nu-Chun Chen states, “from the Tang and Qing dynastic periods to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China illustrates how the body has always been closely allied with the national body politic.” In the post-Maoist period, Chinese athletes began to compete in international sporting events once again. As a way to demonstrate not only to the world, but to their people as well, this reintegration into international events presented a sense of modernity. Furthermore, the recognition of athletes in international competition brought glory to China, and cultivated Chinese nationalism.

Similarly, Brazil attempted to redefine their national identity through the hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. By hosting the World Cup, as well as their vigorous national campaign to win on home soil, Brazil was saying something to the world about itself as a new national power. However, about 61% of Brazilians thought hosting the World Cup was a bad idea due to the funds it would take away from education, health care, and other public services. Additionally, 72% of Brazilians were dissatisfied with the country’s current state, which was intensified by the choice to host the World Cup, rather than address domestic problems. The government ignored the grievances of the nation in order to present a clean, national image. The prestige and recognition of their athletes in the World Cup would bring glory to Brazil, as well as propel the nation into the world system; unfortunately, Brazil lost 7-1 to Germany in the semi-final.

References: Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic of China. Susan Brownell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. xl + 393 pp.

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