What is it about sports that makes it such a powerful tool for nation building, politics, business and propaganda? 3.6 billion people tuned in to watch the last Olympics — the most watched event in human history. The next 24 most watched television broadcasts in history are all sports events, almost entirely either Olympics or World Cup Soccer.
The Olympics Games in ancient Greece was more than a sporting event. It was also a religious event and its origins shrouded in mythology. The Olympics played a vital sociopolitical role in not only spreading Hellenic culture, but for a few days, every four years; a truce was by and large respected, with competing and warring city states coming together to compete at the sacred site of Olympia. As in our time, the games became an opportunity for state entities to earn major bragging rights. The ancient Olympics lasted for approximately 1170 years before it was extinguished towards the end of the Western Roman Empire in 394 CE by Emperor Theodosius who considered the games un-Christian. Religious zealots of all stripes have always had a problem with sports. It would take another 1502 years before the games were brought back to life in 1896.
The other massive global sporting event, the FIFA World Cup, was created in 1904. As in the Olympics or indeed many other sporting competitions, money and influence play a big role. Hosting a global event like the Olympics or the World Cup is no small feat at all. The 1976 Montreal Olympics for example were only finally paid off in 2006 (30 years later). The bidding process for these event are highly political and similar to what you might see for the selection of the rotating Security Council seat at the UN. If a bid is successful, hosting and organizing is a costly and complicated logistical and security operation. Nations that host the games must demonstrate their nation’s ability to organize and host, with all the incumbent infrastructure and security requirements that come with the responsibility.
It’s also a very powerful marketing platform. No amount of advertisement can buy you the publicity a major sporting event can bring to a city or country. Hosting a global sporting event is political statement. It can signal the arrival of a major world power as was the case in the Beijing 2008 Games. It’s also an opportunity for countries to change or influence the way they are perceived. The Sochi Olympics in Russia was highly effective in projecting a more modern image of Russia, as was the 2018 FIFA Russia World Cup, which had an estimated audience of 3.57 billion. Tiny and fabulously wealthy Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It will no doubt serve as an opportunity for the Middle East to showcase itself in a different light versus the negative way in which it is often widely perceived.
Image plays a huge role for the host country. In the modern era, it was Hitler’s propaganda techniques that first really harnessed the power of sports to propagate a political message. Much of the pomp and ceremony we witness in the Olympics today was invented at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Hitler understood the power of sports which is why those games were also the first to be televised. That same year he would create the Hitler Youth with its emphasis on sports as a way to indoctrinate a generation of youth to the Nazi cult of personality and to, ‘eliminate class consciousness’.
Fanaticism, corruption, cheating, cost over-runs, scandals, bans, and boycotts have always existed in sports. Sparta was barred in the 424 BCE games during the Peloponnesian War. In the 80s, the US and the Soviet Union boycotted each other’s Olympic Games; indeed, much of the Cold War was played out at sporting events. All Canadians are familiar with the 1972 Canada USSR Hockey Series. Anyone who was above the age of 5 in Canada at that time can recall the game, and they’ll recount how the game was one of freedom versus communism.
At the Olympics, medal counts have always meant something, but they take on a new meaning in the context of great power rivalries. Medal count tallies are often watched and followed more than the actual events. For great powers, it’s a question of pride. Dominating the medal count has become actual policy in some countries.
Sports has significant nation building qualities and can help heal divisions, bring people together and uplift a nation’s morale. It’s powerful. It can serve to distract from everyday difficulties – panem et circenses, create heroes and villains, and create endless commentary, small talk, as well as highly sophisticated in depth analysis of seemingly unimportant events — games. In Canada, hockey enjoys a mythic status. The US has the Superbowl, and the NBA. In India, it’s Cricket. Soccer has a quasi-religious status in many nations. Around the world, sports fans and team players can become so enthralled with their teams that it forms an integral part of their very identity. Their team is everything and a victory or a loss can affect more than just local morale, it can affect the economy. For many towns and cities, the local team acts as more than an instrument of community cohesion; it stimulates spending, attracts visitors, and lines the coffers.
Whereas on the pitch, rink, arena, track, etc., we mostly see the best of human behaviour, these spectator events can also degenerate into riots, violence and hooliganism – a fascinating subculture and subject study unto itself. This gang like behaviour seems to be more prevalent among certain sports like soccer and some of their fan clubs (ultras).
There’s something deeply tribal about sports – something about being on a team or cheering one’s team on with thousands of other people, sometimes millions, that is just plain primal. Our tribalism is manifested in many forms through nationalism, or by our belonging to a certain group or groups, religious or political and so on; but those groups are also where we can find hidden and interspersed, some of the biggest scoundrels, bigots and yahoos, where they can cloak themselves in patriotism, religion, or a political party. Scoundrels certainly don’t espouse fair play. sports fans or team players on the other hand are in many ways more pure in their bipartisanship. It’s pretty simple goes the thinking – this is my team and I love my team, and I don’t have to explain or convince anyone. They don the tribal paint, chant the chants and stadium cheers can often be heard miles away; and win or lose, they’re back at it the next game for a ritual reckoning. And they accept the outcomes. Entire lives are thus spent cheering one team or another, sitting on the edge of a seat on an emotional roller coaster. And fortunes are made and lost.
Perhaps sports is so political because it strives to be apolitical. There is something beautiful about watching an underdog win or a game finally played fairly on an even playing field. The real magic of sports is its meritocratic nature and its total disregard for social status. It does not discriminate. Some of the most iconic and powerful scenes in recent recorded history involve sports and politics. To name just a few: Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Katherine Switzer at the 1967 Boston Marathon, the South African Rugby team (Springboks) 1995 victory. There are the controversial: the 1968 human rights salute/black power salute), Mohamed Ali and the Vietnam draft, Colin Kaepernick bending the knee. The scandalous and ugly: Lance Armstrong and Ben Johnson and all the other doping and cheating scandals. The corruption, and the atrocious: the Munich massacre.
There’s no doubt that the virtues of sport are among the noblest of human characteristics: fair play, persistence, respect, endurance, excellence, self-improvement, team spirit, etc. The very idea of sports (like art) has a higher purpose. As a society it allows us to have it out and compete in a safe rules-based framework. The idea of sports and politics will always exist especially in the context of world politics.