Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Overlooked Historical Interrelations Between Politics and Sport

From lockdowns to bankruptcies, 2020 has been among the most forgettable years in the history of the sporting world. But even the tangible questions regarding player safety and fan attendance were overshadowed by a more socio-philosophical query, whether or not politics and sport should mix. At the height of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, athletes and leagues from around the world (from the NBA to the EFL) took part in in-game demonstrations against racially charged police brutality in America. Many fans, however, made their disapproval apparent: From the NBA’s viewership, ratings dropped by 40% from 2018 and the NFL’s opening weekend garnered its lowest ratings in over 35 years.

Despite this current setback, there have been many historical instances of sport playing a key role in political resolve, which have, in turn displayed that the blend of sport in politics is not only inherent, but even necessary to political advancement. These underrated examples range from the acts of organizations to those of brave individuals; the goals of establishing peace to those wishing to bring awareness to key social issues. The one collective criteria: their platform changed the world.

The Olympics

Coubertin’s ‘Foundation’ (1894)

While it’s announced as an event of peace and fellowship, the origins of the modern Olympic Games can be deemed as almost totally political. The athletic event was proposed by Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin. The aristocrat grew up in a France still humiliated after a disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, a war which Coubertin believed could have fared better for the French had the nation embraced physical education (PE) training, thus creating a more steadfast populous in times of war. Coubertin’s theory grew after his visit to England’s Rugby School, where he was astounded by Headmaster Thomas Arnold’s education model; he thereby concluded that Britain’s worldwide dominance in the industrial revolution era was due, in large part, to its healthy, physically trained citizens. In turn, Coubertin shifted his focus to channeling the energies of young Frenchmen to organized sports, whilst also being able to compare the athletic abilities of rival nations. The final product was the first modern Olympiad, contested between athletes from 14 nations in Athens, Greece, where the ancient Games first took place. Suddenly, nations began to use the event as a means to showcase their top physical talents, thus seemingly showcasing their superior genetics, regimens and education policies.

Pierre de Coubertin, with a large hat and moustache - the man who brought together politics and sport in the Olympic Games.
Pierre de Coubertin (Source)

The butterfly effect of Coubertin’s underlying intention would spread across the 20th Century, as nations would often utilize the Games as a means to prove national (and even ethnic) superiority; the first prominent example being the 1936 Berlin Games, where Nazi Germany attempted to showcase Aryan dominance through conquering as many events as possible (though their agenda was tarnished by African American sprinter Jesse Owens, who claimed 4 gold medals in). Starting in the 1950s, the Olympics became a setting to contest the Cold War itself, as for over three decades, the United States and Soviet Union fought part of their war, not on battlegrounds, but within the Olympic events, attempting to prove which was the most skillful nation.

It can therefore be construed that the Olympics have often been used by governments and organizations as personifications of larger political conflict. However, as will be examined in the next section, large collectives are not the only ones to make statements via the Games; at times, it has been select individuals who have had the biggest impact.

Figures of Protest (1968, 1980, 2016)

Whilst there have been countless images from the Games which have stood the test of time, these particular three share almost inseparable impacts and qualities. They all represent signs of protest and justice for oppressed groups within their respective nations. An impressive mark considering that these occasions are several generations apart.

One of the most iconic images in American history is the “Black Power” salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who upon winning gold and bronze respectively in the Men’s 200-meter in 1968, raised their fists during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. The gesture was a response to the turbulent race relations permeating through America in the 1960s, with 1968 acting as a ‘tipping point’ following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) raise their fists whilst on the dais in the political "Black Power" protest at the 1968 Olympic Games.
Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) raise their fists in protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (Source).

While Smith and Carlos’ “salute” was a premeditated affair, “Kozakiewicz’s gesture” twelve years later was a more spontaneous, yet still powerful, act. As the 1980 Games took place in Moscow, the Polish athletes had anticipated high tensions, as, since the 1940s, their nation was consistently on the forefront of the rebellion against Soviet control in Central Europe. Tensions mounted in 1978, after the election of a Polish Pope (John Paul II), who spearheaded the fight for an ‘alternative Poland, separate from the government”. The Soviets’ displeasure with the Poles’ revolutionary momentum naturally transferred to the Olympic playing fields. Polish high jumper Władysław Kozakiewicz, along with the other non-Soviet competitors, faced constant abuse and jeering from the host crowd of 70,000. What’s more, Soviet officials allegedly kept entrance doors open during non-Soviets’ jumping attempts, so wind conditions would disturb them. Angered and determined, Kozakiewicz’s final jump proved legendary, as he not only claimed the Gold, but broke a 60-year world record with a 5.78m attempt. Showered with a parade of boos, the Pole turned to the jeering spectators, showing a “bras d’honneur”. The image circled the globe (excluding Soviet media), and became a symbolic turning point in Poland’s rebellion in the 1980s. Less than two months after the gesture was made worldwide headlines, a string of union strikes across Poland led to the establishment of the Solidarity Party, a movement that eventually ended communist rule in Poland in 1989. Though it only took a split second, Kozakiewicz’s “shafting” symbolized a beginning of the end of Soviet control in the region.

The third and final gesture which will be discussed occurred in the Summer Olympiad of 2016, where long-distance runner Feyisa Lilesa expressed the strife in his native Ethiopia to the world. Throughout that same year, the Oromo (Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group) faced threats of displacement and potential annexation from the Amhara and Tigrayan-dominated government, which lead to a year-long protest, where up to 500 Oromo people were reported to have been killed, with some labelling the occurence as attempted genocide. On the final day of the Rio Olympics, Lilesa (an Oromo member) ran towards the finish line of the marathon, in position to take the Silver. Upon crossing the line, the runner raised his arms into an “X-shape”, a sign displayed by Oromo demonstrators throughout the 2016 protest. Lilesa’s gesture, much like the two before him, helped bring international attention to an overlooked human rights conflict.

Image of Lilesa Feyisa, Ethiopian long-distance runner, performing his politically-charged "X" gesture.
“O etiópe Feyisa Lilesa, na Rio 2016” by jeso.carneiro is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0

Despite shared contexts, these gestures are also intertwined with the eventual fate of each athlete, as all four competitors faced serious punishments for their rebellious symbolism. Smith and Carlos became alienated from American society for decades; Kozakiewicz was barred from competing in further Olympic events and defected to West Germany for security reasons; Lilesa feared for his life after the gesture, spending two years in exile in Washington, DC. Death threats were commonplace among each of them. Nonetheless, their stories also interlace in the sense that their gestures brought awareness to political climates, directed international viewpoints, and left them with an undying legacy.


India v Pakistan: Bridging Divides (1952-present)

When it comes to international rivalry, one of the definitive dynamics is the India-Pakistan conflict, a fray that has been active since the Partition of India and Pakistan’s establishment in 1947. During the mass migration, many Muslims clashed with Hindus and Sikhs along the border, leaving a brutal trail of violence. Tensions have only grown at the turn of the century, amidst the Kashmir dispute and the declaration from both nations that they possess nuclear weapons.

Although the subcontinent is admittedly divided among religious lines, the multicultural region shares a love of cricket. While it is justifiably claimed as the fiercest sporting rivalry on earth, India and Pakistan have been able to utilise cricket as a means of relieving political tensions on several occasions. The first notable occurrence happened in 1987, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When India faced Soviet pressure to deflect Pakistan’s aid to the Afghans, then-Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq attended the India-Pakistan test in Jaipur, as a gesture of solidarity. The move allegedly cooled political tensions on a massive scale.

In 2004, after a 15-year hiatus, India commenced a tour of Pakistan in an attempt to bury 50 years of hostility. Incredibly, both nations relaxed their visa regulations upon the tour, allowing thousands of Indians to attend matches across the border (a move progressive from the 1940s border crises). Like Zia ul-Haq before them, almost every India-Pakistan match has the respective Prime Ministers attending the matches together as a symbol of accord. However, in 2011 (the first meeting after the polarising 2008 Mumbai attacks), people believed that the meeting between India’s Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s Yousouf Gilani, while very diplomatic, didn’t seize a historic opportunity to end the dispute over Kashmir. It is, however, commonly believed, that if there ever was an opportunity to reestablish relations between the nations, it would be via the cricket field.

An example of the rivalry’s mutual respect can be seen through the relationships of some of the nations’ most legendary players. When Indian legend (and all-time leading scorer) Sachin Tendulkar was awarded the Padma Shri (India’s equivalent to the OBE), the first person to publicly congratulate him was friend and iconic Pakistani bowler Wasim Aqram. While the actions of governments suggest unmitigated tension, it is the players that set a solid precedent for change; a concept expanded further in the following section.


The Ivory Coast: When Didier Drogba Ended a War (2005)

In October 2005, the Ivory Coast football team travelled to Sudan knowing that a victory would secure them an unprecedented appearance in the FIFA World Cup; but while the team was on the brink of history, their nation was entrenched in a brutal civil war. Beginning in 2002, the nation had been divided along geographical, religious, and ethnic lines (Muslim, Burkinabé-majority North vs Christian, Ivorian-majority South). Leaving up to 2,000 civilians dead and over 1,000,000 displaced, even the presence of the UN and French military failed to calm the war, and an upcoming election almost guaranteed further clash.

Image of footballer Didier Drogba.
Didier Drogba (Source)

Despite the tensity, “Les Éléphants” did not disappoint on the pitch, beating Sudan 3-1, and securing a spot in Germany. As the players celebrated in the locker room, team poster-boy and Chelsea star Didier Drogba grabbed the microphone and announced a focused yet positive plea to Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo to end the war. In his speech, Drogba poetically expressed how this achievement was manifested through a team made up of Northerners, Southerners, Muslims and Christians; the achievement of a unified Ivory Coast. The plea was embraced by the entire nation, as the warring factions called a truce upon the national team’s arrival to Germany in 2006. The football-mad nation had finally been reunited.

Drogba’s reunification agenda didn’t stop after the World Cup. In 2007, upon Ivory Coast’s AFCON qualifier against Madagascar, the striker insisted the teams not play in the National Stadium in Abidjan, but in the ex-rebel stronghold of Bouaké, as an expression of peace. Drogba described the event, seeing ex-opposition leaders singing the national anthem together, as the moment the Ivory Coast was reborn. The impact that Drogba and “Les Éléphants” made on Ivorian society are a quintessential example of the possibilities that sport holds in the sociopolitical psyche.

Whether the messages are universal or controversial, sport has proven to produce results and initiate change throughout history across ethnocultural lines. From governments and organizations aiming to cool tensions via a friendly tenet, to individuals utilizing their platform to bring awareness and change on a global stage, sporting events have held the power to change the world on a political level. Not only is sport related to politics, but it may be a possible platform to establish further peace between rivaling world factions. Nevertheless, only time can tell.

Further Reading and Viewing

Didier Dogba’s Message to President Gbagbo, 2005

Lenskyj, H. Olympic power, Olympic politics: Behind the scenes. The politics of the Olympics, (2010)

Næss-Holm, A. Batting for peace: A study of cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan (Master’s thesis), (2007)

Weber, E. Pierre de Coubertin and the introduction of organised sport in France, (1970)

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