Building the brand

Margaret MacNeill finds out what it means to be Canadian at the Olympics

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:32:38 PM

It is a defining Olympic moment: after winning the gold medal in Sydney, Nigerian-Canadian wrestler Daniel Igali dances around the Canadian flag, then kneels down and kisses it, while announcer Brian Williams declares to millions of TV viewers, “This is what being a real Canadian is all about!”

It is moments like these—laden with symbolism, cultural resonance and socio-economic significance—that University of Toronto physical education and health professor Margaret MacNeill is exploring in her research on Olympic athletes and national identity.

While Igali’s actions may have been spontaneous expressions of patriotism, MacNeill notes they were brought to us by Igali’s corporate sponsors, hours of training in media skills and a television network that was seeking “good-news” stories at an Olympic Games where the Canadian medal count was considered disappointing.

At yet another level, the media celebration of Igali kissing the Canadian flag speaks to deeply held views of immigrants, individualism and nationhood. While the Olympics are filled with genuine drama, they are also “the result of carefully constructed narratives about patriotism and what it means to be a particular kind of Canadian,” MacNeill says.

With co-researchers Peter Donnelly, director of the Canadian Centre for Sport Policy, and Graham Knight, a sociologist at McMaster University, MacNeill also studied the Canadian swim team that competed in Sydney. “Swim Canada was really trying to project the image of ‘squeaky clean’—and all that symbolizes. Photo opportunities, camera angles and athlete profiles all supported this deftly constructed ideal of the ‘clean’ Canadian.”

MacNeill’s insights about the role of the Olympic Games as a cultural event continue to inform our understanding of what it means to be Canadian, particularly in the lead-up to this summer’s Olympics. In fact, she has been invited to speak about sport and identity at the Pre-Olympic Congress in Greece this August.

Margaret MacNeill’s research on the Olympics Games is funded through SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.