Sporting politics

Behind the fanfare, numerous political, social and economic debates will play out during this years sporting events, argues Siobhán McGuirk

June 10, 2021 · 4 min read
Richard Bell and Emory Douglas mural in Brisbane, Australia (CC 3.0)

Another summer of sport is upon us. Well, maybe. We know better by now than to put dates in the diary without a ‘tbc’ alongside – even erstwhile calendar fixtures like the Olympic Games and European Championships. But while pandemic-induced decisions to postpone last year’s iterations seemed unequivocal, the spectre of outright cancellation now appears to haunt their organisers – and executives and sponsorship deal-brokers especially.

Everywhere, arguments abound: publics are wary of viral threat, but sport is good for the spirit and soul. New variants are spreading, but billions of dollars spent must not go to waste. Before the new Olympic cauldron is even lit, before the new official UEFA match ball has been kicked, organised sport is again a matter of international political concern. Even in a pandemic, some norms remain.

A debated arena

Is there an issue more divisive on the left than the role of sport in society? For many, Noam Chomsky among them, organised sport is the opiate of the masses: entertainment that pacifies the working class, channelling their rage away from their oppressors, onto the playing field or towards opposition fans.

Philosopher (and former Olympian) Ljubodrag Simonoviç goes further, arguing that sport is essential to capitalism not as distraction but as an ideological tool: normalising the endless pursuit of ‘progress’ in a quest for new records; militarising our mindsets towards competition and celebrating the victories of the strong over eliminations of the weak.

The connection between nationalism, imperialism and sport has been drawn by many others besides and is worth considering anew in this particular moment. Are events on the horizon encouraging flagwaving in jingoistic times? Or might they emphasise shared interests and rally us towards transnational unity? Most likely, should they go ahead, they will do both – and much more besides, among the billion people watching.

Sports – like music, literature, art and all culture – can be forums for resistance and debate as much as they can be (and have been) tainted and corrupted by capitalism and nationalisms. The views presented in the latest issue of Red Pepper (#232 – subscribe here) demonstrate as much, from differing perspectives on the legacies and potentials of global Olympiads, to Neville Southall, a former professional footballer, lamenting the intolerances and greed distorting the beautiful game. Meanwhile, blurring the lines between sport, recreation and scholarship, a master diver details a quest for justice, a hundred metres deep in the wrecks of slave ships. At the hyper local and global level alike, politics are ingrained into sports.

Players and protest

These articles were all written against backdrops of protest. In England this spring, fans of the Premier League ‘big six’ took to the streets and invaded pitches to demand their clubs’ owners put community interests and sporting integrity before shareholder bonuses. All year, at every Premier League match, players and referees have taken a knee, borrowing the potent yet career-ruining stance of American footballer Colin Kaepernick to assert: Black Lives Matter.

Some players have also raised a fist while kneeling, echoing the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games – and making clear their own stance on the place of politics in sport. Racist abuse has far from diminished, however, and the utility of such actions can and should be debated. They cannot, at least, be ignored. However sports are wielded this summer, and however onlookers respond, there will remain powerful political forces – for good and for bad – at play.

Siobhan McGuirk is a co-editor of Red Pepper. This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue, Rue Britannia. Subscribe to grab your copy!


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