Should we not mix politics and sport?

“You should never mix politics and football. You should always show respect. It’s a wonderful atmosphere and a positive experience and that’s what football should be about” –

said the Swiss coach after the match between Serbia and Switzerland at 2018 football World Cup in Russia. The coach was commenting on the controversy related to three Swiss players – two of them born in Kosovo – who celebrated their goals with «Albanian eagle» on the field. The gesture was deemed politically-motivated by Serbia, it filed a formal complaint, so FIFA initiated disciplinary proceedings for those players in question.

That episode is just one of many other examples of controversies around any international sport competitions. The most resonant cases are usually related to such truly global events as football World Cup and Olympic games. When it comes to this kind of high-profile competitions, there is probably little chance to separate sport from politics. First reason – can anyone think of better ways to raise global awareness about certain issues than bringing the topic to the field of play and taking advantage of universal passion for sport? Second – sport has become substantially commercialized, today it is a big business, and the more newsbreaks it generates – the better it is for the sport industry. The newsbreaks certainly appear.

It was not always like this. The initial well-intentioned idea of the ancient Games was to use the opportunities of sport as a way to overcome differences and bring people together, to assist them in resolving conflicts, at the same time reinforcing people’s identity. No surprise the founder of modern Olympics  saw it as peaceful communication channel, as a way to release aggression. Could Baron de Coubertin foresee the downside of his idealistic dream?

Offensive messages, political banners, calls for boycott as a way to exercise pressure on the policy of this or that country are becoming common accompaniment for the Games. Sport has become a powerful tool on the international arena: sport records, achievements of national teams, organization of events and even the very right to hold the Games have become the instruments of building up image of a country. So sometimes the atmosphere is far from wonderful, and positive experience is not guaranteed for the sides involved, be it athletes, spectators, host or organizers.  

We like it or not, the competitive world of sport is another reflection of a real world, with tensions and controversies being its integral part. So despite Olympic Charter principles, not only athletes or national teams compete with each other but also the states and even ideologies.  

Looking back at one of the most drastic examples of sport being driven by political ambition, we might recall the lessons of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Those Games had been awarded to Germany before Hitler came to power, and the period from 1933 to 1936 became a fight for control between the German National Socialist regime, the International Olympic Committee, and anti-Nazi supporters of an Olympic boycott.

The boycott supporters challenged the Olympic policy towards Germany that had to observe Olympic charter forbidding racial and religious discrimination. There was also an important moral aspect: letting Germany host the biggest international sport event would mean further legitimizing the Nazi regime among international community.

The International Olympic Committee was in an extremely delicate situation and sought formal pledges from the Germans to observe Olympic charter.  In May 1934, after a pro forma review, the lOC declared itself satisfied with how Germans had performed. So did the various national Olympic committees who justified their decisions by the obedience to the authority of the next higher level.

Avery Brundage, then the president of the American Olympic Committee and the powerful defender of Olympic business, insisted that National Socialism was separate from Olympic concerns, since the Games belonged to the IOC and not to any host country. At the time, there was another – ideological – motive: New Germany was halting Communists in Western Europe. So, in spite of considerable pro-boycott public opinion the decision was taken: Unites States of America that had sent the most athletes to past Olympics and usually won the most medals, would not withhold its significant Olympic team in protest of the Nazis Jews discrimination policies. Some other important officials including Pierre de Coubertin were favorably impressed by Hitler’s charisma,  Olympics sport complex and the new Germany level or organization and discipline. Despite the mistreatment of Jews and banning  of non-Aryans from Germany’s Olympic team, the Berlin Olympics went as scheduled, and was a success. The Nazis got what they most wanted from hosting the Olympics – respectability.

Sport dramatizes victory, defeat and competition, and up until today persist the debates over acceptability of boycotting the Games in a given country to demonstrate international community attitude towards its internal or external policies. Sport is a powerful tool that can be used in different ways though: it has a huge potential to contribute to peace building.

There are prominent examples when sport helps to reconcile rival states. This is how the term «ping-pong diplomacy» appeared in the early 1970s. At that time, the United States and People’s Republic of China had not have diplomatic or economic relations for nearly 20 years following China’s entry into the Korean War. The World Table Tennis Championship provided an opportunity for both countries to open up for each other.  U.S. ping-pong players were sent to Japan to participate in a competition and where they were invited by the Chinese delegation to visit the People’s Republic. A year later, China’s tennis table team went to the United States, playing a series of matches in eight cities.

  “The little ball moves the Big Ball.” – Chairman Mao then said.

Another well-known term – «cricket diplomacy» – appeared as a result of renewed talks between India and Pakistan following the Cricket World Cup in 2011. There was the time when the escalation of tension in relations between India and Pakistan forced their national teams either to hold competitions in third countries or cancel them as was the case after the terrorist attack in Mumbai. The sport event was the first meeting between the two rivals on one of their home grounds since then.

Sport is capable of uniting divided nations too. For example, the football team of Ivory Coast was made up of players from both parts of the divided country when it competed in the 2006 African Cup of Nations. As such, the squad was recognized as a symbol of reconciliation and the broad support gained all over the country helped to resume peace talks.

Sport has been used for reconciliation to improve relationships between divided people in the Balkans, the Middle East, West and Central Africa, Sri Lanka, South America. In post-conflict situations, sport programs are used by UN peacekeeping operations as a «door opener» to rebuild trust by bringing together former opponents, and to re-integrate ex-combatants into the civil communities. Although sport alone cannot stop or solve an acute conflict, it represents a flexible method for post-conflict relief work and peace building as well as conflict prevention.

Considering sport’s ability to embrace millions of people globally, there is no surprise sport is often influenced by politics. To ensure sport heals and not divides people,  local organizations, international NGOs, national federations and other institutions should work hard and work together in a coordinated way.

“The little ball moves the Big ball.” In which direction? It is up to us to decide.

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15 Comments on Should we not mix politics and sport?

Good article. Thus the world of sport has become like Hollywood, highly paid celebrities that do not remain professional but use their power to promote political messages. Fortunately, some of the teams only wanted to play football. I cheered for them.

    Thank you for the comment Charalee. That’s exactly the point. Possibilities and challenges go hand in hand. Professional sport has become a global forum. Notwithstanding governing bodies regulations and sanctions people are and will be tempted to use such exceptional occasions to deliver their messages. And then there is a choice: ignore/punish or reflect and act upon.

Dear Marina,

thank you for your time and thoughts. I think it was high time to share such a point of view. You are truly right by saying that sports became extremely commercialized during the last decades. This process or development is due to the raising level of interest and vice versa. Now, that we see sport events being in the focus of media, we can find many channels of its use and abuse.

In the past, sport served many times as a communication tool in diplomatic affairs. Here, contact was possibly made between two or more countries in conflict, the participation was a sign of good will or the non-participation served as an advice that the political development did not go along with mutual interests. For now, we look at the content from the perspective of the states that takes the decision on how to act, for example to participate or not. But sports, politics, and diplomacy can be even more complex.

It becomes more complex when we look at it from the angle of organizations such as the FIFA or the IOC. What would you say when it comes to the point of admitting countries to the pool of potential hosts for such events. Could it be a financial, a political or a political motivated act to admit states to the hosts raffle, even when human rights (as understood by most of the western states) are not respected? Or does a ‘western world’ has the authority to project their understanding on all remaining countries? Would you call this ignorant and a devaluation of states? Can we really distinguish between sports and politics, or is it all COMMUNICATION?

And yes, I think it is critical if sportsmen become or accept the role as multiplicators and influencers by realizing political related signs or performing dances that young people connect with video games. As sports attract such a wide audience, it is up to the ruling organizations, the international diplomats, and sportsmen to reflect on their responsibility and to take the decision if and how they wish to take action in such events.

Further reading: Sport Diplomacy and Mediation – https://worldmediation.org/conflict-reports/

Best regards, Daniel

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment Daniel. You raise reasonable questions. There are no obvious and definite answers though. Sport is extremely diverse. Amateur and professional sport apparently have different goals, resources, methods. Fifa events are very specific because they are nationalistic in their very nature. People want them to be that way. People want the national teams to compete, national symbols to be demonstrated, national songs to be sung… And there are risks and benefits to it. And you are right, sports organizations, individual athletes, and even spectators are all responsible for realising and as much as possible avoiding those risks, as well using those benefits to the fullest.

Dear Marina,

it is weird for me to realize that I never raised any questions specifically to the field of football. It is very interesting to read your statement on the fact that FIFA events are of an nationalistic character. What may be the benefits for the hosting country to be recognized as such by the global spectators?

Additionally, I ask myself what the real message of the slogan: ‘Living Football’ can be when we have to take notice that the FIFA does not involve independent agencies for realizing doping controls and when we witness players how they ignore a ‘Fair Play’ but try to pass with as much hidden fouls as possible.

I think Football being managed on the national – continental – and international level loses the credibility that such a global influencer needs. This credibility becomes sabotaged by the proper target that this immense money generating industry has put itself, namely to maintain and widen its power and days of inventory.

Best regards, Daniel

    Dear Daniel,
    there are three parts in your comment.
    So, first, we need to be careful with words. “Nationalistic” here is used in a sense of national consciousness, and not in a sense of exalting one nation above others of course. The World Cup is made for national football teams to compete, that’s what my statement was about. Are there any benefits for the hosting country to be recognized as nationally conscious by the global spectators? Not necessarily. It depends on the context. Are there benefits for the hosting or any other country to recognize itself as a united conscious nation? Absolutely.
    Speaking of “Living football” part, you know, I am still impressed by yesterday’s game Croatia – Russia. Thousands of people in the stadium as well as in front of their screens all over the world were living every single moment of a beautiful game. And notwithstanding the result, they were then celebrating two teams and 22 players spirit and perseverance demonstrated on the field of play. Fifa decisions are taken by people, who might have their own interests, might be wrong, might be biased… Does it severely undermine the “Living football” principle? I don’t think so.
    As for the credibility part, you might be right. But what options do we have? Will you not watch football?:) I am not a big fan of the idea to abolish something which is not working properly. I would rather think of how to make things work better.

      Dear Marina,

      thank you for your thoughts. And yes, I totally agree to all your points, specially to the match between Russia and Croatia. It was a prototype of a fair match where Fair Play was truly lived and the players respected themselves. This was also obvious after the game when the players and the audience expressed respect and gratitudes to each other.

      The credibility of the organization might be a topic for itself. The truth is, that the executives of such organizations are involved in lots of politics, internally and externally. Additionally, it is difficult to identify goals that go along with the needs and expectations of a global community and to realize them in a way that serve all persons involved. That means that there are always popular and unpopular decisions to be taken. What might be of interest for such a powerful and influencing organization is to act in a specific way and to find a path of how to prevent and minimize criticism. I guess you will agree when I say that a sure instinct and sustainable vision of the management is of help at this point.

      Best regards, Daniel

If we back to the 776 BC at the time of the Ancient Olympic Games, Pan-Hellenic Games when Greece was not a single state which were made by independent cities – communities, according to the legend the beginning of the game meant the declaration of peace among the cities that were in conflict.
Winners didn’t receive financial reward. The winners of the games would become a respected citizens and they often took on a political role. Today successful athletes become ambassadors of UNICEF and non-governmental organizations in order to help socially and physically endangered people especially children.
Popular sports such as football they earn a lot of money. Political power is directly related to material goods.
Sources of political power are
1) economic
2) ideological
3) political
4) military
The economic component may be the most important for politics, so it does not surprise the political impact on sporting events.
If we compare the first Olympics games with today’s sporting events we come to the conclusion that formerly sports skills have brought power today political power depends on the money that sport disciplines make.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective, Kristina. Hope to have you with us at the Round Table next week and to exchange the views.

I agree that no one should mix politics and sport because, as you mentioned, ‘the initial well-intentioned idea of the ancient games was to use the opportunities of sport as a way to overcome differences and bring people together, to assist them in resolving conflicts…’. However, in a country where there is no social equality, athletes can express their feelings to overcome differences, because it is a great occasion to be seen by all important actors. For example, during the 200m medal ceremony at the 1968 olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the Black Power Salute to express their feelings about the American society in 1960s . Consequently, it is not a problem for athletes during the olympics or world cup games to illustrate wisely a political issue to better resolve it.

    Thank you for the comment and the eloquent example. It perfectly reflects the idea of the article.

It is a very interesting article and clever comments.
I think politics and sports have many things in common, they are competitive systems, they raise passion and strong feelings in the people. Now days with the worldwide technologies of communications, the word has become one when we talk about sports.
Football is capable to sit all the America, Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania fans, at the same time in front of a screen: heart-beating, waiting to see their favorite team to go out on the field. Especially if the team comes from our own country, it is not easy to forget the nationalistic instinct and start wanting to see our favorite team win.
Our perceptions and emotions get inside the sport game and we get in the trap, identified with our country team, and for an instant, the other team becomes the “enemy”. A game between two groups of eleven men /women in our minds is like a war between countries. Fortunately is just a game that drives our emotional word, and nobody was hurt.
On the other side, we have also to consider all the political matters that implies a big word sport competition for the countries involved: economic benefits, commercial opportunities, security policy, increase of tourism, respectability, international community opinion.
Politics and sports together, are a source of conflict. It is inevitable. However, they are also an opportunity to left behind old resentments, and open ourselves to another time, culture, values, ideologies, religion. In addition, why not? , A sport game can be a way to solve a problem, when the only option is to spin a coin in the air.

    I definitely share your positive and constructive way of thinking Ana Margarita. Thank you for sharing your view.

Dear Marina,

I am glad you wrote about the intersection of sports and politics. Indeed, it is one of the methods widely used in peacebuilding. PeacePlayers international is one such example of an organization based out of Israel-Palestine that uses the sport of basketball to foster goodwill and relationships between amongst the youth in the Middle East.

I completely agree that sports becomes a channel for states and ideologies to compete with each other. The playground becomes another form of a battleground. It is a battle of power, ideology, legitimacy and international prestige. Taking Clausewitz’s conception of politics as a continuation of war by other means, I would take it one step further to argue that sports is a continuation of politics by other means.

However, I would like to offer a reframing of the title question of your article ‘Should we not mix politics and sport’. In my view, the question of ‘should’ does not arise, because politics already exists everywhere. As Foucault argued, power flows and permeates every structure in society and sphere of life, whether we like politics or not- in the family, religion, corporations, non-profits, school, art, sports, so on and so forth. Politics is not a concept that we can choose to employ in selective situations only. It is a feature of life. After all, the personal is political. And sports, by its very competitive nature both within and between teams and individuals, is inherently political. Therefore, in my humble opinion, politics and sports are already mixed. But I do understand the sentiment and type of politics that your article was specifically referring to.

States compete for power and prestige through international sports events. The extent of the seriousness of these competitions are shocking. This can be seen by Uday Hussein’s (Saddam Hussein’s son) treatment of Iraqi athletes after they failed to win gold medals at the Olympics. Hussein is known to have tortured and brutally humiliated Iraq’s Olympic players, including shaving their heads and infecting their wounds, as punishment for not securing first place. Clearly, sports was more than mere games to him. It was Iraq’s chance to redeem itself in the eyes of the international community.

We have talked about international sport events, but let’s for a second look at the politics of sports at the micro level for a second. There is an hierarchy of players to start with- a ‘referee’ or umpire, who solely holds authority and discretion of judgement, and the very structure of teams have players arranged in terms of importance- captains, quarterbacks, offensive liners, defence, and of course, let us not forget the substitutes. These terms are not simply positions, but have meaning attached to them. More often than not, the amount of respect and fame given to players is linked to the position they play.

Questions:

So my question is, CAN sports be separated from politics at all? Can we think of examples that exist outside of the ideal world?

Secondly, is ‘political’ intrinsically linked to nations? If there were international sports competitions between individuals or international teams, instead of representatives of nations, does this mean that we would see less politics in such a scenario?

Third, is there a funding aspect with regard to which country gets to host the World Cup or Olympics? Is there anything else to gain despite international standing and a boost in tourism? For example, there are rumours of large corruption scandals whenever countries get their hands on funding to host such large events. I encourage you all to read the 2010 Commonwealth Games scam in India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/miscellaneous/commonwealth-games-scam/articleshow/56032112.cms

Lastly, are there any costs incurred by the countries hosting major sports events?

Looking forward to carrying the discussion forward on 26th!

    Dear Rhea,

    thank you for these deep insights. In fact, there are multiple questions and issues that you raise, and we could spend hours in a fascinating discourse.
    Can sports be separated from politics at all? Might depend on the level of competitions. But generally – I don’t think so, that’s the point. And you confirm that “the question of ‘should’ does not arise”. So I rather encourage and challenge myself and – hopefully – those who read this, to think about the ways to use the existing way of things to build a better future today. What are those baby steps that we can be doing in sports? education? health care? international relations?..all those complex and clumsy systems criticized by many.
    Is ‘political’ intrinsically linked to nations? I believe it is. Can be for the better, can be for the worse. If there were international sports competitions between individuals or international teams, instead of representatives of nations, does this mean that we would see less politics in such a scenario? I tend to believe the answer would be yes.
    Is there anything else to gain despite international standing and a boost in tourism? From my view – definitely. This explains why the stakes are that high. Even given the costs incurred by the countries hosting major sports events.
    These are great questions Rhea, and as most of the great questions, they make you take a pause and think. I realize my short answers can not be considered satisfactory. This is why at this point I thank you for the analogy of micro-level that I found particularly interesting and I now look forward to meeting you and discussing it at the nearest WMO event – already tomorrow!

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