The Situationist

Can Sports Save the World? (& what must be done beforehand) – Part I

Posted by Jason Chung on July 21, 2008

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.

* * *

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!

8 Responses to “Can Sports Save the World? (& what must be done beforehand) – Part I”

  1. salas said

    Very interesting topic — especially today, as increased global reliance (environment, economy, etc) makes mutual understanding important.

    To take the opposite view from your piece above, I’m not sure if the recent Pakistan-India cricket matches brought a temporary cooling in the violent rhetoric between the two sides; Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis didn’t help relieve the tension building into WWII.

  2. pelagica said

    I suppose it’s because sports create an artificial “nation” where at least temporarily, weighty world issues are forgotten and the focus is on kicking around a soccer ball with clear rules and regulations, which puts most people in a better mood later for negotiating more gloomy issues.

    Sorry to go off topic, but as a CVT my focus has been on the 2012 Olympics. Despite England’s excellent record on animal welfare, the Olympic committee in London began demolition activities for the Olympics – with a feral cat colony living inside the buildings. They were fully aware of these animals as they demolished the buildings, leaving some to starve inside the rubble and crushing many others. They would not cooperate with an animal rescue group who begged to come at night and remove the cats, although the group eventually gained some access.

    The point is, I’ve been hearing cries of “Boycott the 2012 Olympics” or even “Boycott England”! How exactly does one boycott an entire nation? The only people who can make an impact are athletes, and it would be a minor event unless many athletes dropped out. Those of us just watching it on TV, how can we even make a dent boycotting the sponsors, when they’re so huge that they can afford to advertise on such a huge event? Protests seem futile for such a large event, and too fleeting.

    Although I think China may make connections with some nations this way, if they’ve been this stubborn in keeping with their lousy human rights record, any change may be temporary and hollow. I guess the good news is that much more frequent sports events between nations may be a way to open negotiations, if only we could make those events popular.

  3. Somewhat related: A Commentary on Boxing and Culture @

  4. Sarah M said

    To answer the question of how an entire nation can be boycotted, just look at the sporting isolation of South Africa during the 60s and 70s. The international community came together to severely limit interaction with South African rugby and cricket teams, in particular, with the result that sports became one of the first cultural institutions to reintegrate in the late 70s and early 80s.

    For more specific information, look at the 1968 rugby test scheduled between a New Zealand side including several Samoan players and the South African national team, or the D’Oliveira affair of the same time period. Or I can send you a copy of my undergraduate thesis on the positive impact of cricket development in apartheid South Africa.

  5. pelagica said

    I would like to read about your research, Sarah – thank you! If you click on my name in the comment you can visit my blog and send me a message. I suppose my follow up questions would be, are people as politically active now? Would such a stragegy work, and how were people motivated to take such actions?

  6. […] by Jason Chung on August 15, 2008 In Part I of this multi-part Situationist series, I assessed the oft-repeated assertion that sport can help […]

  7. This is a wonderful post, but I was wondering how do I suscribe to the RSS feed?

  8. […] Jason Chung has a thought-provoking post on The Situationist on whether the Beijing Summer Olympics will bridge political differences […]

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