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The Anthem Olympics

Which national anthem deserves the gold?

F act: National anthems are a huge part of the Olympic experience. Every athlete dreams of standing atop the medals podium and hearing the hymn of her country while her windbreaker billows in the breeze. The rest of us love watching these moments and feeling emotions like, “Wait, maybe I do want to die in battle” (France) and “Jesus, nice anthem, Canada” (Canada).

Which got me thinking: What if national anthems had their own Olympic event? What if patriotic songs from around the world competed to win gold and hear themselves at the medals ceremony? I’m talking about Eurovision crossed with taekwondo crossed with people saying “sticking the dismount,” all with a needlessly complex and easily manipulated scoring system that no one entirely understands. I’m talking about raw, unstoppable anthem bloodshed.

My friends, you are about to enter the world where this happens. You are about to enter a world where dreams come true.

The Format

Out of the 204 countries competing in the London Olympics, 203 entered anthems in the qualifying rounds.1 A series of grueling heats2 has whittled this number down to 10 finalists, who will compete in four different events:

1. Transcendence of Historical Suffering (Freestyle)
2. 200m Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism
3. Compulsory Tingliness
4. Volksgeist, the Expression of the Spirit of the People

Events are scored on a scale of 1 to 10, in half-point increments. Scores in each event are multiplied by a degree-of-difficulty rating determined by historical/cultural context (i.e., it is currently easier for Brazil to inculcate optimism than for Greece), mostly because “degree of difficulty” is an awesome concept.3 Medals are awarded in each individual event, and the anthem with the highest cumulative score wins gold in the individual all-around competition.

This is happening, people. We are doing some Olympics right now.

Participation Notes: The anthem of Wales, which sounds like pipe organs mating in a forest and which would have been an instant medal contender, was not eligible for competition because of the whole “Wales is part of Great Britain” business. (The English: crappy at anthem-writing, historically decent at armies.)

Scheduling Notes: NBC has elected not to show the final round live, choosing instead to broadcast the semifinals of men’s 92kg steeple shooting, an event in which well-dressed gentlemen on horseback fire rifles into the sides of tiny churches. To watch the action as it unfolds, navigate to nbcolympics.com, validate your cable subscription, click “Live Schedule,” then click “Watch Now,” then click “All Events,” then actually go back because that list is impossibly long, click “Schedule by Availability,” click “A,” click “Alternate Events,” reopen your browser after it crashes, Google “watch anthems final NBC,” then finally go on Twitter and ask someone for the link.

As a special bonus, we’ll be joined in the studio by Bob Costas and longtime Olympic anthems commentator Pepper Bohannan. The order of the contestants was selected by the anthems’ scores in the last qualifying round, from lowest to highest.

Time for some magic.

1. Nepal: “Made of Hundreds of Flowers”

You want to find it corny. You want to say, “This anthem contains too much about biodiversity and not enough about blood-soaked mountainsides.” You want to say, “This anthem is too easy.” You want to say, “Plus, this anthem sounds like the 8-bit soundtrack for the dwarven kingdom in a 1988 computer RPG called Thanequest.”

But it gets you. The more you pull away, the tighter it wraps its silken threads around your shoulders. Hush, it whispers to you. Just be. Listening to it, you feel sure that Nepal is a nice place, a place you’d like to go, full of warmth, friendliness, stunning landscapes, and people dancing at night in traditional, possibly quasi-religious costumes. Sensual dancing, but not sexual dancing. Not corrupt dancing. Just good, watchable dancing. Maybe the air is dry and pure. Maybe you’re talking about the air with Angelina Jolie. You want to order a dish you’ve never eaten before? Do it. This is Nepal, and Angelina will only appreciate your adventurousness.

Bob Costas’s Take: “Now, Nepal is a country where most of the royal family was massacred in a tragic murder-suicide by Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001. Pepper?”

Pepper Bohannan’s Take: “That’s just some good antheming right there. Maybe not gold-medal antheming, but for an anthem that’s only existed since 2007, the people of Nepal can feel a lot of pride in their anthem tonight.”

Scores: Transcendence of Historical Suffering (7.5 x 1.3 DoD = 9.75); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (9.5 x 1.2 DoD = 11.4); Tingliness (8 x 1.2 DoD = 9.6); Volksgeist (9 x 1.1 DoD = 9.9). TOTAL SCORE = 40.65

2. Nigeria: “Arise, O Compatriots”

A good anthem has to do a lot of things. It has to inspire. It has to instill loyalty to the nation-state. It has to be singable. Most important, it has to capture a mysterious and complex feeling of being simultaneously (a) in church, (b) about to charge the enemy trenches, and (c) at a really great New Year’s party.

In this sense, “Arise, O Compatriots” may be the ur-anthem, the anthemic prototype from which all other anthems descend. OK, fine, it was written in 1978 by the Nigerian Police Band. And yes, Austria’s national anthem might have been written in 1791 by Mozart. But you know what? Mozart’s music does not hand me a Mauser rifle and a Bible and tell me to die gloriously for the person I’m about to kiss at midnight. Hold your head high, Nigerian anthem. It’s going to be a good year, Marjorie. Let old acquaintance … [Dies impaled on bayonet. Amen.]

Bob Costas’s Take: “Viewers at home may know Nigeria as the site of the horrific religious riots in the city of Jos that left more than 500 people dead in 2010. Pepper?”

Pepper Bohannan’s Take: “Nigeria’s critics like to say that the pace drags a little in the middle section, which could mean a slight deduction in their Inculcation of Optimism score. But to me, that’s an outstanding anthem.”

Scores: “Transcendence of Historical Suffering (8.5 x 1.1 DoD = 9.35); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (7.5 x 1.6 DoD = 12); Tingliness (8 x 1.3 DoD = 10.4); Volksgeist (7.5 x 1.4 DoD = 10.5). TOTAL SCORE = 42.25

3. North Korea: “The Patriotic Song”

“Oh, Muhn?”

“Yes, Dear Leader?”

“Muhn, bring me my quill pen and a sheaf of our finest Pyongyang-milled staff paper. I have a mind to compose a new song.”

“Yes, Dear Leader.”

“It shall be a song for all the people of this land. A song expressing their spirit, their fortitude, their courage. A kind of anthem — by heaven, I think I’ve coined a new concept, Muhn!”

“Another one, sir?”

“Yes, Muhn, another one. Muhn, it is 2004. I believe every nation should have a unique song expressing its ideals and its character. A … a patriotic song, Muhn, if you will.”

“A kind of anthem, then, sir?”

“Precisely. Now bring me that quill pen and staff paper. I have a hard hour’s work ahead.”

“Writing our anthem, sir?”

“Not just our anthem, Muhn. All the anthems.”

All the anthems, sir?”

“Well, I have only just invented the concept, Muhn. Every country will need one. My goodness, my brain is humming. I shall also have to enter the Time Caverns and retroactively insert these anthems into each nation’s history and cultural memory. Muhn, bring me the original reels of Casablanca.”

“Yes, Your Dear-Leaderliness.”

“And some Combos, Muhn. Some Pepperoni Pizza Combos. Many Pepperoni Pizza Combos.”

“Yes, Your Dear-Leaderliness.”

“I have an appetite, Muhn, and it is the people’s work we do this night.”

Bob Costas’s Take: “I’ve read that in times of famine — which is of course much of the time in North Korea — the people subsist by eating grass.”

Pepper Bohannan’s Take: “I’m not convinced that this is really a gold-medal anthem on the technical elements. Probably the saving grace for the DPKR is that the degree of difficulty is so high that even modest scores could vault them into medal contention.”

Scores: Transcendence of Historical Suffering (6 x 1.1 DoD = 6.6); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (6.5 x 2 DoD = 13); Tingliness (6 x 1.6 DoD = 9.6); Volksgeist (6.5 x 1.2 DoD = 7.8). TOTAL SCORE = 37

4. United States of America, “The Star-Spangled Banner”

America has suffered over the centuries, largely from wounds she has inflicted on herself. Slavery. A long, bloody Civil War. Generations of racial discord. A political system that frequently betrays its deepest ideals. A wounded, wounding insistence on its special destiny in the world. In light of this troubled past, we can only admire the wisdom of the American people for selecting as their anthem a song that directly confronts the single most painful moment from their history: The time when Francis Scott Key didn’t know who had won the battle for Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The chord progression might be stodgy, the melody might be hard to sing, but the words — words about not being able to see very well when peering over the side of an 18th-century sailing ship — remain as true today as they were the day they were written.

Bob Costas’s Take: “Here’s an amusing story: It’s being said that many members of Team USA didn’t like the food in the Olympic Village … and then they realized there was a McDonald’s right there. Pepper?”

Pepper Bohannan’s Take: “You know, Bob, the U.S. doesn’t have a reputation as an anthem country. It was a surprise to many people that they made the medal round at all. Up next, we’ll talk about this perception with each American anthemer individually for 20 minutes.”

Scores: Transcendence of Historical Suffering (6.5 x 1.5 DoD = 9.75); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (7.5 x 1.3 DoD = 9.75); Tingliness (8 x 1.3 DoD = 10.4); Volksgeist (7 x 1.5 DoD = 10.5). TOTAL SCORE = 40.4

5. South Africa: Combination of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”

I mean … beautiful, right? And “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is only half of it! The other half is taken from the old apartheid-era anthem “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika.” As you’d expect, it is definitely just as good.

Bob Costas’s Take: “Obviously, when most people think of South Africa, they think of apartheid. It’s less well known that today, the country has one of the highest murder rates of any place on Earth. Different eras, different tragedies. Pepper?”

Pepper Bohannan’s Take: “You know, Bob, the South African anthem’s mom, Brenda, is here in the stands tonight. And I don’t think there could be a prouder mom than Brenda is right now.”

Scores: Transcendence of Historical Suffering (9.5 x 1.2 DoD = 11.4); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (9 x 1.7 DoD = 15.3); Tingliness (8.5 x 1.3 DoD = 11.05); Volksgeist (9 x 1.5 DoD = 13.5). TOTAL SCORE = 51.25

6. Israel: “Hatikvah”

I know. Believe me, I know. It’s not that you “feel chills” when listening to this anthem. It’s that the rest of the time, you feel nothing, you’re a shell, the gray world races around you like some sort of time-lapse effect in a city-themed coffee commercial (“Before your first cup of Maxwell House, life moves a little fast!”), and then you hear “Hatikvah” and feel whole again. That shivering? That’s just your nervous system coming back. And then you read through all 1,519 YouTube comments and it occurs to you that you should maybe just drive out to Big Cat Jungle Adventure on Highway 85 and park the Impreza in the leopard section and get out.

Bob Costas’s Take: “Of course, you hate to mention the Holocaust at an event that’s supposed to be a celebration. But still: the Holocaust. Pepper?”

Pepper Bohannan: “Just a bit of scoochiness on the dismount, Bob. Not a major deduction. Not a major deduction at all.”

Bob Costas’s Take (Part 2): “The Holocaust, Pepper. The. Holocaust.”

Scores: Transcendence of Historical Suffering (10 x 1 DoD = 10); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (9 x 2 DoD = 18); Tingliness (9.5 x 1.2 DoD = 11.4); Volksgeist (10 x 1.1 DoD = 11). TOTAL SCORE = 50.4

7. Montenegro: “Oj, svijetla majska zoro”

Where does it come from? How does a nation of 632,000 people — roughly a quarter the size of the borough of Queens — produce an anthem that … I mean, if a mountain range woke up one day, unfolded itself into a race of giant stone men, and marched off to war, each step crushing houses and splintering the Earth’s crust, this is what they would sing while they marched. Are you planning to kill Superman? THIS IS YOUR LAIR MUSIC.

Quick intuitive translation of the lyrics:

The seething hot magma at the core of the world —

Bring us our tankards, we want to drink some for breakfast!

We wean our babies on lava, and they can’t get enough.

By the time they’re 6, they could beat an oak tree at wrestling.

Everyone! Do you understand that we are ferocious?

We have ventured down among the bones of the mountains,

Where we killed like 50 or 60 dragons,

We didn’t even keep track, that’s how easy it was.

My beard is the moss that binds the stone of God’s fury.

Drink with us! Drink with all of us! Be welcome!

We will wipe the floor with you and leave you for dead.

I’m in a good mood! I may dismember a bear.

Again: Montenegro, pop. 632,000.

It’s the Olympics. Miracles happen.

Bob Costas’s Take: “Now, Montenegro is a lovely land. I’ve been there. During the Second World War, the unrelenting guerrilla fighting there led to some of the most disturbing scenes anywhere in the European theater.”

Pepper Bohannan’s Take: “The Montenegrin anthemers are one of the Cinderella stories of this Olympics. Every time they come out here to anthem, you can see the crowd responding, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Scores: Transcendence of Historical Suffering (9.5 x 1.2 DoD = 11.4); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (10 x 1.7 DoD = 17); Tingliness (9.5 x 1.8 DoD = 17.1); Volksgeist (10 x 1.5 DoD = 15). TOTAL SCORE = 60.5

8. Japan, “Kimigayo”

The poem that “Kimigayo” is based on is hundreds of years old. “Kimigayo” is now sung by pop divas at soccer games. You don’t critique “Kimigayo,” in the same way that you don’t go to Sequoia National Park and complain that the trees “seem a little off.” You don’t even talk about “Kimigayo.” You just take in its aura of mystery, give it the bronze medal, and get the hell out of its way.

Bob Costas’s Take: “An interesting tidbit here: In Japan, there’s been a significant recent uptick in suicide by inhalation of poison gas. Fascinating. Pepper?”

Pepper Bohannan’s Take: “The Japanese anthem is so infused with tradition and majesty. It’s one of my favorite anthems on the anthems circuit week-to-week. It’s not the flashiest anthem out there, but it just seems like this anthem always brings the goods.”

Scores: Transcendence of Historical Suffering (9 x 1.3 DoD = 11.7); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (9.5 x 1.6 DoD = 15.2); Tingliness (8.5 x 1.5 DoD = 12.75); Volksgeist (10 x 1.2 DoD = 12). TOTAL SCORE = 51.65

9. Russia: “National Anthem of the Russian Federation”

It was a cold night in Cornwall, and John Le Carré lay dreaming.

His housemaid had turned up the heat again, and his bedroom — for all the snow piled up on the windowsill — was a little sauna. The great writer of spy thrillers was tangled in his sheets, sweating and thrashing from side to side under the influence of some terrible nightmare.

What did he dream of? He saw Moscow, vivid and onion-domed against the bleak Russian plain. He saw boys on motorcycles, leather jackets, cigarettes dangling, tattoos. He saw girls with pink hair. He saw tourists with their cameras, wild dogs fighting for scraps in the alleys, barges on the Moskva, restaurants with their gaudy signs. He saw a bank of televisions in a shop window showing footage of an old Soviet army parade, the marchers in their high hats and gray overcoats, tanks in the streets, old men saluting from a balcony. He saw the old Lubyanka Building, once the headquarters of the KGB, before that the site of a czarist insurance office. “The tallest building in Russia,” the people used to joke. “You can see Siberia from the basement.” A man with pale eyes and an empty expression was coming out a side door, tucking a file into his coat. What was in the file? The man vanished into the crowd. Terrible ironies, terrible juxtapositions. Le Carré groaned in his sleep. It was too much, he would never be able to capture it all, never be able to express it. Russia was a montage of madness, a chaos nothing could hold together.

He woke up. For a moment he thought he was still in the world of the dream. Then he realized that Matilda had forgotten to turn off his record player. The Russian national anthem was crackling away in the corner, some old version, Kondrashin, perhaps, he couldn’t remember. Le Carr&eacute rubbed his eyes and got out of bed.

[Also: Remember the Montenegrin national anthem? Meet its older brother.]

Bob Costas’s Take: “I’m just shooting from the hip here, Pepper, but I wouldn’t want to live in Russia at all. I think it would be just awful.”

Pepper Bohannan’s Take: “What can we say, Bob? You might see antheming as good as this — if you’re lucky, I mean. But you’re never going to see antheming better than this. You hear that, Bob? Never.”

Scores: Transcendence of Historical Suffering (10 x 1.3 DoD = 13); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (10 x 1.6 DoD = 16); Tingliness (10 x 1.6 DoD = 16); Volksgeist (10 x 1.3 DoD = 13). TOTAL SCORE = 58

10: France: “La Marseillaise”

Here’s the thing about “La Marseillaise.” Most anthems work by making themselves timeless. Queue up “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Spotify, and you’re not listening to an old song or a new song; you’re listening to a segment of culture that has abstracted itself from the issue of age altogether. That’s why anthems can be endlessly reinterpreted by guitar gods, jazz musicians, electro-freaks, DJs, whatever. Somewhere out there, there’s probably a skweee/dubstep version of “National Anthem of the Russian Federation” that would make you dance like there was no friction while crying tears of rage. That’s how it is with anthems. They just … apply.

“La Marseillaise,” though? It’s different. It comes into your world. It takes you by the arm, not ungallantly. And it guides you back into its world. Oh, hello, French Revolution. Yeah, I guess you mattered. What’s new, endless, gleaming ranks of cannons? Ready for some shooting? Hang on, let me adjust the gold buttons on my dashing midnight-blue uniform. I had my saber here, somewhere. OK, all set, everybody? Let’s shed some blood for an ideal!

This always, always happens. “La Marseillaise” isn’t about fitting itself into your graduation or Olympic swimming ceremony or whatever. It’s about taking your graduation or Olympic swimming ceremony and momentarily plunging it into the furnace of the 1790s, before suddenly bringing it back, forever changed. This is why rock versions of “La Marseillaise” always wind up sounding like Nickelodeon credits. Updating “La Marseillaise” is always goofy, because “La Marseillaise” is really about backdating you.

And then there’s this. Inescapably, there is this:

Not to mention this:

Make all the “France surrenders” jokes you want. This is the anthem of anthems. You can imagine a better national anthem, but it would be performed by actual volcanoes and the nation it belonged to would be Mars.

Bob Costas’s Take: “Speaking of the South of France: Some of the shipwrecks they’ve had there are absolutely bloodcurdling. I’m talking cannibalism, madness, the full descent into the hell of human nature. The works. Pepper?”

Pepper Bohannan’s Take: “I’m speechless, Bob, I really am. Anthems like this are why I got into antheming in the first place.”

Scores: Transcendence of Historical Suffering (10 x 1.7 DoD = 17); Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism (10 x 1.5 DoD = 15); Tingliness (10 x 1.4 DoD = 14); Volksgeist (10 x 1.7 DoD = 17). TOTAL SCORE = 63

Medal Ceremony

Transcendence of Historical Suffering (Freestyle)
Gold: France, “La Marseillaise”
Silver: Russia, “National Anthem of the Russian Federation”
Bronze: Japan, “Kimigayo”

200m Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism
Gold: Israel, “Hatikvah”
Silver: Montenegro, “Oj, svijetla majska zoro”
Bronze: Russia, “National Anthem of the Russian Federation”

Compulsory Tingliness
Gold: Montenegro, “Oj, svijetla majska zoro”
Silver: Russia, “National Anthem of the Russian Federation”
Bronze: France, “La Marseillaise”

Volksgeist
Gold: France, “La Marseillaise”
Silver: Montenegro, “Oj, svijetla majska zoro”
Bronze: South Africa, combination of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”

INDIVIDUAL ALL-AROUND
Gold: France, “La Marseillaise”
Silver: Montenegro, “Oj, svijetla majska zoro”
Bronze: Russia, “National Anthem of the Russian Federation”

A stunning upset in the individual all-around as Montenegro rides the high degree of difficulty involved in just being Montenegro to beat Russia for the silver, even though Russia scored perfect 10s in each individual category. Oh, but there will be controversy on SportsCenter tonight. Otherwise, France extended its gold-medal streak in the all-around to “all the gold medals, forever” while also picking up two individual golds and a bronze. It’s been an enjoyable nine hours here at the Anthems Centre! Race walking is next.

For Bob Costas and Pepper Bohannan, I wish you a good night.

Filed Under: Olympics, Sports

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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