That’s a refrain we hear every time someone uses a sporting occasion to make a political stand or point. It comes usually from both politicians and from fans who don’t like their entertainment spoiled by intrusive thoughts from the real world. But what they amazingly overlook is that sport is riddled with politics, especially at the international level.
Sport is war by other means
This spin on Clausewitz’s famous quote that “War is the continuation of politics by other means” is merely an observation of a fact that goes back at least to the Classical Greek period and the function of the original Olympic Games. It was a chance for rival city states to compete with one another for glory without the expense of all out war. The revival of that tradition in 1894 had the same aim but with about as much success at ending war. Instead it’s been used continually for states to promote their image and their interests* or for others to contest them. The 1936 Berlin Games may be the most notorious but there have been others, like the boycott by the USA and others of the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. Nothing sums this up more than the flag waving at the opening ceremony and the medal ceremonies. The games are supposed to be about the sportsmen and women but all the commentators crow about the number of prizes their country has won as if the whole nation had been running, jumping or throwing things. That’s why so many states have been directly involved in doping their athletes to improve their chances of more medals and greater prestige.
Nor is this confined to the Olympics – it applies to every other sport, especially football. The night after England beat Germany 5:1 in the World Cup series of 2001, the celebrations in the streets of my town made me think it was a rerun of VE Day.
Of course, these vicarious war games aren’t confined to international competitions but are at the heart of inter-city and inter-regional rivalries that can spill over into gang violence between ‘hooligans’ with different loyalties. That’s frowned on by the authorities who however have no problem with endorsing the rhetoric behind it, if it suits them. One well-known American footballer quit the game because he was fed up helping the fans enjoy their aggression by proxy through him.
There are many more examples that could be given, even of governments winning or losing elections because of the results of major sporting events and not forgetting the 1969 war between Honduras and El Salvador over a football match! So, please, let’s stop pretending we believe that sport has nothing to do with politics and vice versa. Politics means ‘people’s business’ and sport is definitely one of those businesses.
[* This occasionally backfires as with the 1972 Munich Olympics. I was in France and reading Charlie Hebdo where a column by François Cavanna described how the US contingent “200 strong … the earth trembling at their tread”, because of the beautiful accident of the alphabet, were followed by the North Vietnamese squad – three men and one woman. I wonder how many Americans saw the irony in that, if inded they were allowed to see it. That was also the year Black September kidnapped a load of Israeli athletes and their government gave a green light to the German authorities to intercept them at all costs. I’m quoting Charlie Hebdo again for that.]
(picture credits: Eric Reid (left) and Colin Kaepernick from BBC News Online; Tommie Smith (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (right) at the 1968 Summer Olympics, Mexico City, from Wikipedia)