For love of country

Athletes at the Olympics want to win not just for themselves, but also for their country

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic waves to the crowd with tears in his eyes after losing his men’s first round singles tennis match against Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

I was surprised when I saw the photograph of Novak Djokovic crying.

The world's No. 1 tennis player is in Brazil for the Olympic Games.

Unexpectedly, he lost his first singles match, which meant he was out of the competition (The next day, he lost in the doubles too.)

Photos of him after the first match showed him heartbroken. His face was stricken. His eyes were brimming with tears.

I couldn't understand it.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic waves to the crowd with tears in his eyes after losing his men’s first round singles tennis match against Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

While he has never won an Olympic medal, he has won 12 Grand Slam singles titles and countless other tournaments.

In June, he became the first player in tennis history to earn more than US$100 million (S$135 million) in prize money. And we're not even talking about his endorsement takings.

Besides, Olympic tennis isn't exactly regarded as a blue riband of the tennis world, not the way, say, Wimbledon is. And he has won three Wimbledon titles already.

So why did he take it so hard?

But he did.

"No doubt it's one of the toughest losses in my life, in my career," he told The New York Times after the match. "...It's not the first or the last time I'm losing a tennis match, but Olympic Games, yeah it's different."

I couldn't get his sad face out of my head. When I went home, I asked H, a tennis fan: Why do you think Djokovic cried?

Well, he said, he wanted to win for his country, didn't he?

Which was when it clicked for me. To win for your country - that's what a lot of the Olympics is about, isn't it?

In some sporting events, the credit and spotlight fall on individuals or teams.

When Djokovic wins a Grand Slam, it is Djokovic who gets the accolades, not Serbia where he is from. When Lewis Hamilton wins a Formula 1 race, he and his team, Mercedes, are feted, not so much Britain, the country he is from.

But when you win at the Olympics, the victory belongs to your country too. And when you lose, your disappointment is theirs.

The Olympics is the biggest Patriot Games the planet knows.

Its opening ceremony is a United Nations parade of contingents, some dressed proudly in national dress.

The Olympic medal table pits countries against one another. At the winners' ceremony, national anthems are played and flags are raised.

Of course this happens at other games too, but the Olympics is the biggest stage in the sports world with the most number of countries taking part, events and audience - in other words, so much national pride is at stake.

When you see the faces of the champions at the podium when their national anthem is played, it is clear that the Olympics isn't just about athletes seeking glory for themselves - although it is a lot about that.

It is also about athletes seeking glory for their country.

Djokovic said as much. On Aug 7, the day before his loss, he posted on his Facebook a photo of himself at the Village.

"You are cheering for your countries so passionately! Can you imagine how passionate we play for our countries!!" his post read.

When Dmitriy Balandin became the first swimmer from Kazakhstan to win a gold in the sport last week, he said: "To make history for Kazakhstan is the best thing I can do for my country. It's just unbelievable."

It's also country they think about when they lose, or don't win gold.

When Chinese diver Qin Kai and his partner Cao Yuan had to settle for third in the men's 3m springboard event, Qin said he was disappointed with himself.

"I feel like I've let (China) down... of course we don't want this result," he said.

It's not just the athletes who are feeling patriotic, of course. The audiences form the other part of the equation. We root for you to win because your win - and loss - will also be ours.

Sometimes, patriotism spills over to nationalism.

There is a difference between the two, and Charles de Gaulle put it best: "Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first."

What is it about one's country that makes one fiercely loyal to it? What is it about its flag and anthem that bring a lump to your throat, tears to your eyes?

The fact that your family and friends are there, I suppose. That your formative years were spent there. The familiarity with its people, landscape, food, quirks and smells. The comfort which comes from it being simply your home.

Patriotism has little to do with how grand or rich your country is.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote : "(Large countries') patriotism is different: they are buoyed by their glory, their importance, their universal mission.

"The Czechs loved their country not because it was glorious but because it was unknown; not because it was big but because it was small and in constant danger. Their patriotism was an enormous compassion for their country."

Can an athlete who represents a country other than the one he was born in feel real patriotism?

And if you are an immigrant, can you really feel strongly about your new country and root for it?

I think it is possible, although I also think your feelings for your motherland will never die - and there is nothing at all wrong with that.

My mother supports Team Singapore, but her heart also has room for Team Japan. And if both Singapore and Japan were to be competing in one race, she would be happy if either won.

Yesterday morning, I joined Singaporeans to watch Joseph Schooling swim his heart out in the 100m butterfly.

I had butterflies myself in my stomach. My heart was in my throat. My hands were clammy. I almost couldn't bear to watch the race.

Then Schooling did it - he not only won the race, but also broke an Olympic record and beat the great Michael Phelps in the process. Oh my goodness, what a feeling that was. I felt giddy with happiness, pride and vindication.

Who says tiny Singapore can't produce an Olympic gold champion? Who says a home-grown boy who likes his chye tow kway - the blacker the better - and lived in Bedok and Marine Parade can't be among the world's best swimmers?

And when Schooling conducted himself with humility and grace at the victory ceremony, I was bursting with pride.

I wanted to record the Majulah Singapura moment on my phone, but I was still so excited about what he has done that I forgot to press "record".

Not everyone can be an Olympic champion, or even an Olympic athlete. To get to the Games is already an achievement. And then to win, wow.

"This swim wasn't for me," Schooling told reporters later.

"It's for my country."

Thank you, Joseph, for the gold medal.

• Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'For love of country'. Print Edition | Subscribe