Author’s note: This post is the first of a multi-part series examining the relationship between politics and sport and what political prerequisites must exist before sport can have a deeper reconciliatory effect among peoples within states and between states. These works are part of the author’s Masters thesis.
With the 2008 Beijing Olympic Summer Games fast approaching, there has been much speculation as to how the Olympics will impact China’s socio-political development. On one hand, Western international news organizations such as CNN and the BBC predict the Olympics could become highly politicized with human rights protests. The Chinese news agency Xinhua, however, espouses the Chinese state’s upbeat view that these Olympics will help “integrate itself into the world.” Interestingly, a core assumption regarding sport may be driving this debate: sports play a crucial role in defining how a state’s populace views itself and how it interacts with other states.
Indeed, the perception that sport has a role to play in the social, ethnic, and political relations which define dynamics within and between states has spread to various world elites and social actors. Thus far, most of the attention that sport has received has been positive. World opinion leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, note that
[s]port has the power to unite people in a way little else can. Sport can create hope where there was once only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand.
At a cursory glance, the links between sport and inter-state reconciliation seem abundant. Some pundits credit Ping-Pong Diplomacy with facilitating the subsequent thaw of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. Others point to Table Tennis Diplomacy and the attempted Olympic Diplomacy as effective difference-bridges between the two Koreas in the latter decades of the 20th century. More generally, there has been a widely held sense that sports, in Jeremy Goldberg‘s words, serve as “a ‘safe’ way to ease a country out of isolation, acting as a first step of engagement, if not the first step.”
This transformation of conflict-laden bonds is not limited to inter-state rivalries. In 2007, following the apparent success of the Côte d’Ivoire’s national men’s football team in rallying the country and ending a five-year long civil war between Northern rebels and the government-controlled South, a spokesman for the Minister for Sport in Côte d’Ivoire, Geoffrey Baillet, had this to say:
We, the politicians, we went to the best universities; we’re the intellectuals, the supposed leaders of the country. But when it came to making peace, we failed. It’s a group of soccer players that brought us together. [Ivorian football star] Didier Drogba came from nothing. Now he’s a worldwide star and a hero for us. He’s done a great thing for his country.
Hence, sport appears to possess a quality which promotes not only inter-state reconciliation but also intra-state reconciliation. Judging from both the aforementioned Ivorian example and the images of a celebrating multi-ethnic Iraq following that country’s victory in the Asian Football Confederation Championship, it would seem that sport has at least a temporary ability to create intra-state linkages between conflicting factions.
National-level sporting events are therefore perceived to offer reconciliatory powers and diplomatic significance by members of society and powerful elites. In both countries experiencing either “cold” (potential) or “hot” (open and violent) inter-state and intra-state conflicts, there have been concrete examples in which at least a segment of those involved point to sport as a significant factor in obtaining reconciliation. For one reason or another, sport seems to have a unique ability to transcend common social cleavages such as class, nationality, and race and create bonds between sides in conflict.
It remains to be seen, however, how much of this sentiment can be attributed to mere platitudes versus how much influence sport has as a tool of political and social reconciliation between and within states.
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In the coming months on The Situationist, I will draw from various theoretical backgrounds – including social psychology and political science – to explore the relationship between sport and politics. I will conclude this series by advancing a general framework for gauging the effectiveness of sport in resolving long-standing social and political issues.
Comments and observations are most welcome and may very well be incorporated within future posts. If you currently hold an academic or professional affiliation, and consent to being quoted by the author, please sign your posts with your title and institutional affiliation. I look forward to a candid discussion regarding sport and politics!