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The late Avery Brundage of the United States, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, argued that sports and politics are and should always be separate. Yet, clearly even a cursory look below the surface indicates how sports are a heady mix of inspiration and representation, with the latter related to obvious forms of identification within the social context.
When we consider politics in sports we must examine the internal, external, and peripheral influences on sports. Internally, the authorities and organizations that determine the development of their particular sport can be viewed as inherently political. The fact that key policy decisions are made by governing bodies and sports authorities makes this a political process. The issue of politics affecting the sporting environment from outside is more obviously dependent on the use of examples. The issue is particularly related to how during the twentieth century sports became increasingly affected by the political undercurrents within society. The interaction between sports and politics has also been partly a result of increasing international exchange at a diplomatic and sporting level. However, another key agent in this developing dynamic since the mid-nineteenth century has been peripheral influences such as the growth of the media. The provision of television as a mode of information transfer, since the mid-1960s, has further solidified the link between political processes and the sporting context.
Sports and broader expressions of physical culture have played a role throughout history as a means of achieving political capital and increased popularity for political figures. The centrality of the ancient Roman coliseum to successive emperors is a good example of this fact. Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century the organization and development of sports were firmly in the hands of elite social groups. This fact suggests that the structure of the sociopolitical environment played a key role in popularizing the pastimes and activities that have since spread throughout society and across the world. More recently, the German chancellor Adolf Hitler’s use of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin cast a shadow over those particular Olympics as much for the political management of the event as for the subsequent horrors of that regime.
Sports and physical culture were also significant in the former Communist countries. Indeed, significant political figures in Communist nations began to develop a highly utilitarian physical culture to support the needs of their society. Communist societies in particular needed it and strong people to work to support the development of their society and also to defend the state if necessary. In China a long history of traditional pastimes and court games informs China’s more recent utilitarian system of physical culture. In command economies psychic income is received by the state and society from having an international champion. Cuba’s history of boxing success at the Olympics is a good example of the political importance of sporting success to Communist states. It provides vigor to their self-image and raises their standing in the eyes of the world. Although these examples illustrate the extent of state manipulation of sports for political ends, this issue is not limited to Communism.
Internal Politics of Sports
We should examine the full extent of political processes involved in sports. They can operate at the international level, as detailed in the examples related to the Olympics. In the former USSR sports were little more than a tool of the state. They provided a focus for their achievements on an international stage, and the governing bodies operated under direct governmental control to further this goal. Certainly the full glare of the global media provides its own form of accountability for those people making political decisions at the level of international sports.
At the national level more complex models exist for providing sports. The models can be affected by the national culture, climate, religion, economics, and, of course, society in general. Perhaps most difficult to distinguish is the often informal and occasional type of provision at a local level. What is not always clear is how different national political processes are supposed to act in the best interests of sports. In many respects the governmental policy toward sports (even the lack of a distinct policy) can inform our analysis of the provision of sports. Clearly the introduction of greater degrees of planning and organization related to school sports and physical education can affect notions of health and illness within society as well as have potentially positive effects on rates of crime and recidivism. The importance of such sports development initiatives will only increase in the future. At both the national and local levels accountability is provided by the democratic process; yet, perhaps the most powerful policy makers are not actually politicians. The role of the national governing bodies provides further information about how the national government interacts with its national sporting authorities. The role of the governing bodies can also be viewed as central to the character and nature of sports. An excellent example of this fact has been the stewardship of the Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee.
The application of political theories to sports can also provide a useful analytical lens. Pluralism and the traditional Western model of sports remain the consensus position for most developed countries. This position recognizes the fact that numerous agencies have a bearing on the practical aspects of sports. The provision of a consensus can also be relevant to the notion of hegemony (influence) within sports. A more controversial political ideology that has had a crucial influence on the way that sports are viewed within their socio-economic context relates to traditional Marxism. Although the German political philosopher Karl Marx did not actually focus on sports, an analysis of the sociopolitical context can be directly applied to the sporting context. Marx’s focus on the inequalities inherent within the structure of many societies is a perspective that continues to influence the growing study of how best to provide practical forms of sports development.
Sports remain part of a policy-making process, and by definition politics and political structures are a central part of any policy-making process. Sports, by definition, have to be organized by decisions made within a particular nation’s politicoeconomic structure. Consequently, sports would not enjoy the popularity that they have if not for the influence and control provided by the varied efforts of political associations and organizations as well as politicians and policies throughout history. Indeed, Bruce Kidd, an expert on international sport, put it rather eloquently in the British series about the history of the Olympics, The Games in Question (1988):
Politics have always been part of international sport and to suggest otherwise is ludicrous. Training and competition … everything connected with an international sports event are provided by a decision-making process that I would call political. They involve the allocation of resources towards sport and away from something else and that is a political process.
External Politics Affecting Sports
After World War II the Cold War provided a backdrop to world sports between 1950 and 1990 and added a significant political aspect to the practice of international relations, including sports. However, not all instances of political intrusion at the Olympic Games were related to Cold War tensions. The black power salute of Tommy Smith and John Carlos at Mexico City in 1968 remains an enduring example of the use of the sporting arena for the expression of diverse political agendas, in this case regarding the issue of civil rights within the United States. An unintended consequence of the protest at Mexico City was to highlight to others with diverse and often radical political agendas how sports can be used as a vehicle to communicate a message. This incident was to have terrible and far-reaching consequences after the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The Palestinian terrorist group Black September used that global sports festival as a means to disseminate its message related to the prevailing political situation in the Middle East. Four years later the boycott of the Montreal Olympic Games by the Organization of African Unity (OAU)— after protests against sporting links with apartheid (racial segregation) South Africa—provided a global focus for examining and hardening attitudes toward that pariah state. Again the role of the media in providing a vehicle for disseminating such messages is significant.
Clearly sports have the ability to act as a metaphorical background or a pressure-relief valve for both nations and individuals. On a number of occasions the sporting arena in general and the Olympic Games in particular have provided a stage where the two superpowers could compete in a sporting environment in front of the eyes of the world. In a number of instances politics has adversely affected the proceedings. Indeed, one can argue that without politics a broad interest in international sports would not exist today. The use of the Olympic Games as a tool in boycott politics during the 1970s and 1980s was possible only because of the influence of the mass media on global society during the latter half of the twentieth century.
The Olympic Games during the Cold War provide examples of this inherent tension within the developing sporting exchange. The Moscow Olympic Games of 1980 and the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1984 were tarnished by boycotts related to ongoing fractious superpower relations. Yet, in 1976 in Montreal the Olympic Games were boycotted by the Organization of African Unity in protest of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Although the 1976 boycott was clearly political, perhaps the best examples of Cold War tensions in sports were the boycotts of the early 1980s. At both Moscow and Los Angeles the Olympic Games acted as a showcase for the political ideologies of Communism and capitalism, respectively. Too often in the history of the Olympic Games opportunities to learn about people in other countries and to develop a sense of social responsibility have been undermined by the subordination of sports and recreation to political and commercial goals.
Some academics subsequently have argued that the huge success of the Los Angeles Olympic Games after the spectacular overspending at Moscow showed which political system worked better. Although this argument may be a bit simplistic to take at face value, we should realize the power of the media in providing a sufficient vehicle for the dissemination of political messages, whether positive or negative. Undoubtedly the media can operate more effectively in a market rather than a centralized command economy. In that sense it can directly affect not only the type of message disseminated, but also how that message is received. Indeed, we should remember that the media provide a means of data and information transfer for sports. In this respect we can view sports as a victim of their own success. The relationship between sports and the media is vital to this process. Sports are a uniquely cheap and effective programming resource, in relative terms, for different forms of media. In fact, this axis with the media must continue to provide a major revenue stream in support of both the organization and development of sports.
Sports as Representation
Indeed, the influence of politics on sports, coupled with the development of media coverage, was one of the defining features of the development of international sports during the latter part of the twentieth century. The late U.S. President Richard Nixon used the pretext of a sporting exchange to nurture closer relations with hard-line Communist China. A table tennis match was scheduled between the two nations. This match led to a short period of high-level exchange, which became known as “Ping-Pong diplomacy.” The role that sports have played in the hardening of attitudes in tense situations should not be underestimated. In the former Yugoslavia prior to the war in the Balkans, soccer teams provided a focus for demonstration and even violent conflict that served to challenge interethnic relations. Illustrative examples during the early 1990s were matches between the Red Star Belgrade (Serbia) and Dynamo Zagreb (Croatia), which took on a significant political element. These often violent, highly charged matches mirrored the tensions related to the slow, inexorable collapse of the Yugoslav state.
As sports provide a focus for social interaction they inevitably come under pressure from those people seeking to use sports events (or success in an event) to highlight a particular political agenda. In many cases the attempt to control the political environment through sports results in a spectacular and contentious sporting outcome. Sports are undoubtedly a political endeavor when they involve national rivalries, and politics likely will continue to be central for sports on many fronts, both in a theoretical sense and in a practical sense. The strong representational element within sports (which in turn are supported by the political system) elevates sports within our social psyche and so makes them more important to our societies. Sports provide everyone from a head of state to a fringe ideologue with the ability to present his or her message to millions across the globe.
Separation of Power
In most nations a separation exists between those people in charge of developing sports and those people in charge of funding sports. Even this separation of power on sound organizational principles is an example of politics affecting sports. Such separation fundamentally affects the interaction between groups related to the funding and organization of sports. Often as a result of the organizing and planning process, sports tend to exhibit characteristics related to a particular national identity and its perceived uniqueness. During this nonlinear process sports become increasingly relevant to societies in a representational sense. We should not underestimate the importance of the representational element of sports to policy and political groups. Politicians and political structures usually act to channel national resources toward certain sporting goals, particularly when a sport has enjoyed success on the world stage. The potential of a feel-good factor provided by sporting success to sustain the popularity of politicians has been recognized since ancient Roman times. Despite the protestations of many administrators and sportspeople, the link between sports and politics was firmly established before sports became the all-pervasive element of popular culture that they are today.
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