I find it very interesting when sports stars who play in national teams are not just praised for playing and winning medals, but elevated to the status of unrivalled patriots and national heroes. If the so called Indian cricket team represents the country in the world cup (and say, brings home the cup), do they do it out of patriotism and their commitment to furthering national interest? I hope there is nobody who is foolish enough to answer this question with a ‘yes’. These players play because they are good at it (and in many cases at nothing else) and get paid for it, and are idolized and celebrated for doing that. To them, it would make no difference if they’re representing their country or some petty club, as long as they derive the same benefits from playing. On the other hand, if wearing the national jersey would disqualify them from some more prestigious professional tournaments or when there is any clash in the fixtures, they would gladly trade national pride for their own professional advancement.
If someone likes a sportsperson for their game, admires their skill and puts them on the pedestal for that, I am perfectly fine with it. But that holds equally for others who excel in their own field. It could be a great music composer, a captivating author, or a mesmerizing artist, for instance. All of them follow their passion, make great sacrifices for its sake, and inspire us to bring out the best in us. And, in time, they all make their countrymen proud. I fail to see how playing in a designated national team can make some of them more patriotic. However, if their primary motivation is national pride and for its sake are willing to give up other things of value in life, their case for being patriotic national heroes is stronger. As an example, consider an exceptionally talented young athlete from a poor country who has very limited facilities at home to refine his skills to perfection. If he turns down an offer from a developed country to accept their citizenship and represent them in a prestigious international sporting event in return for providing him the best-in-class training and equipment, but instead stays back and works even harder with the limited resources that his own nation can provide, to go on and win a silver medal in the name of his motherland (where he could have easily won the gold had he accepted the offer), I would grant that his commitment to national pride is greater than both his passion for the sport and desire for personal accomplishment. I would consider his efforts patriotic in nature.
This criteria of sacrifice to filter patriots from other achievers can be equally applied to other spheres of human activity such as politics. We have many in politics today, but only a few of them are in it for the sake of the nation or its people. The vast majority have other reasons for entering politics, and the lure of power or money is perhaps a leading one among them. In any such lucrative field, those who have talent or ability will be found irrespective of what their motivation is. Now, contrast this with the situation when India was under British rule. Those who stepped into the national struggle at that time had nothing to gain from it except the freedom of their motherland, and were willing to risk their lives and personal liberty to further this cause. In a perilous field that this was at that time, only those who are devoted to a selfless cause will be found, regardless of whether they have much talent in the field or not. This may be roughly visualized using a diagram with four quadrants as shown below.
Extending the same logic to other fields such as military, you’ll find that the army of a militarily dominant country will have more people who aspire to rise to rise to the top and make a name for themselves, whereas the army of a country that is on the verge of survival will consist of mostly men who care less for themselves and more for the country. At a time when computer science is a lucrative profession, you’d find talented people with varied interests ending up in this field. If there be no money to be made from this field, however, only those who have a genuine passion for the subject would remain in the profession. Much in the same way, those who aspire for a career in a sport such as cricket in India need not have any patriotic fervor or even a passion for the sport – they basically need to have confidence in their abilities and right opportunity to develop them. To think of them as patriots who defy all odds to defend national honour and to blindly adulate them is, in my opinion, an insult to those true patriots who have sacrificed their lives and dreams on the altar of their love for their nation.
Related reading: The Mass Appeal of Martyrdom