Why sport is always political
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Though many believe that sport is apolitical and neutral, sport is intricately enmeshed within the larger socio-political context in which it operates.

A webinar held on 7 May 2021, organised by the U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division as part of World Learning’s International Sports Programming Initiative, explored the ways sport and politics are intricately intertwined. Featuring panellists from around the world, it addressed how sport operates within a larger social context, and is thus inherently political.

Perspectives from around the world

Haresh Deol, a journalist from Malaysia, opened the panel. He highlighted how many people tend to look at sports in a narrow way, focusing only on elite athletes. However, he noted that “sports is mass first – mass participation is needed to build elite athletes.”

Malaysian politicians have used the mass appeal of sports to garner votes, Deol noted. They often promise new stadiums and other sports infrastructure while campaigning. Some ministers are the patrons or presidents of football associations. In Malaysia, sport is therefore closely linked to formal politics.

Giving a South Asian perspective, Dr. Muqtedar Khan, a professor from the University of Delaware, discussed how cricket has increasingly become a political sport. In a reversal of power which has moved away from the West, the sport has become dominated by a postcolonial country, India.In order to become rich in cricket, you have to support or play with India.

India has weaponised cricket against its rival, Pakistan, in order to isolate the country in the sport. India refuses to play Pakistan, has not engaged in any bilateral series with Pakistan for the last eight years, and has even banned Pakistani players from the Indian Premier League. Although such matches generate a lot of money, capitalist and profit-driven notions are side-lined in favour of political gains. India has often asked Pakistan to change its foreign and security policies in order to resume cricket matches between the countries, and is using cricket to influence political change in Pakistan.

The next speaker was Dr. Lindsay Krasnoff, a consultant, writer and historian who has worked extensively on the politics of sport in France. She noted how the French sport system, which aims to encourage mass participation in sport, was built after the 1960 Olympics. These were the first modern Olympics to be televised, which had a far-reaching impact.

French Olympians did not fare as well as they had hoped. The ensuing national humiliation triggered a government investigation into the loss. This ultimately led to the creation of a nationwide elite athlete detection system, predominantly in football, which later expanded to other sports. Due to the French government’s intervention, sport has grown from the grassroots to the elite level in the country, and it has become one of the world’s most successful sporting nations.

The final panelist was Dr. Loic Tregoures, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Lille in France, whose research focuses on sport politics and identity formation in the former Yugoslavia. His research traces the history of sport, especially football, and how it was used by the Yugoslav communist regime and later became a way to cement ethnic identities and develop separatist nationalist movements.

The communist regime hoped to form a Yugoslavian civic identity through sport, and focused policy on collective sports that emphasised the values of unity and togetherness. The focus was not winning medals or excelling in sport but using sport to form a cohesive identity. Tregoures noted, however, that when the war started in Yugoslavia, the sports field became another frontier where ethnic friction was amplified.

Personal is political

Panellists also shared personal stories from their own lives to show how sports is political, even at a grassroots level: personal experiences with sport are often shaped by the larger socio-political contexts.

Khan narrated a story of how, as a child, a friendly cricket match between his team and a neighbouring team devolved into a riot when spectators in the predominantly Hindu neighbourhood noted that the rival team, which was defeating their home team (comprised of Hindus), was made up entirely of Muslims. Spectators began to attack the Muslim team, and communal tensions in the larger society brewed over into a friendly match. Ultimately, the police were summoned to placate the crowd and ensure the players’ safety.

Deol shared how growing up in Kuala Lampur in the 1980s, all the players on his football team would drink water from the same pail, regardless of ethnic or religious differences. However, things are different now, and some Malaysians go as far as to claim that difference races should participate in different sports. This is because the race-based politics that dominates all levels of government has now trickled into sports.

Krasnoff and Tregoures relayed stories from their attendance and observations of mega-sport events. Krasnoff said the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France showed the progress made in accepting and celebrating women’s athleticism in French society. While women’s football was looked down on in the 1960s, it has taken off since the 2010s. The success of the women’s national team has also affected the number of women and girls that now play the sport.

Tregoures spoke of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Athletes from countries of the former Yugoslavia were socialising with each other, and they were criticised in their home countries for acquainting themselves with supposed ‘traitors’. He emphasised how the wider socio-political situation meant that athletes could not even casually fraternise without repercussions.

Sport is political

The panellists’ research and stories illustrated how sports, like any other facet of life, is inherently political. To assume otherwise would be naïve or, as Tregoures noted, even hypocritical. As Khan said: “Politics is as much a part of sports as it is a part of life.” Instead of separating the two, we should focus on harnessing the political power of sport for the greater good.

Looking at sport through a political lens means looking at who has access to sport and who does not. While sport is often regarded as an equaliser, it can only work this way if a conscious effort is made to ensure that all have equal access. Hence, understanding the politics of sport is essential to informing policy on sport access.

Sport can also be used to bring about peace in society. As Deol noted, sport has been the best solution to resolve racial tensions in Malaysia. Khan reiterated this, suggesting that more friendly matches between rival nations and groups can help humanise the so-called ‘enemy’. He emphasised that instead of focusing only on elite athletes, sport at a grassroots level should be mobilised to become a vehicle for peace. Panellists emphasised, however, that in order for sport to achieve peace, it must be designed in a way to do so.

  • Watch a recording of the webinar here