“It is hard to believe that anyone will ever be able to say again, with a straight face, that sport is nothing to do with politics.” (Whannel, 1986, P.2) This coming after the events of the 1980 Moscow Olympics that saw a boycott by the United States as well as athletes from Britain competing under the Olympic, not the British flag after fighting parliamentary intervention in order to take part. Up to this period before the early 1980’s, which saw “a considerable growth in interest in the relationship between politics and sport,” (Polley, 1998, P.13) there was a widely held popular belief that sport and politics did not naturally belong together.
And even now there are still many, David Coltart being one, who hold this view. Writing for the Daily Telegraph (31/12/2002), he says, “it is entirely correct to keep politics out of sport.” But whether sport should remain uninfluenced by politics and politicians is an entirely different question to whether sport can remain uninfluenced by politics. I will first try and answer the question whether or not sport can remain uninfluenced before I deal with whether or not it should.
The view that sport and politics do not naturally belong together assumes, for example, “that sport is a free and voluntary activity that works beyond the constraints of the prevailing political economy; that sport is a private activity in which political agencies have no business; and that when political agencies do get involved, they invariably damage, corrupt, or pervert sport.” (Polley, 1998, P.12) What this view ignores is that sport and political agencies have had a long term, structural relationship at all levels, from local through to international. This stance also fails to distinguish between political involvement and political intervention, which are two completely separate actions.
Allison (1983, P.17) cites two underlying reasons why sport and politics impinge on each other, in what he called the “considerable and necessary politics of sport.” The first is that sport “creates politically usable resources,” (Allison, 1983, P.12) such as social order, local and national prestige, and physical health, and “as long as sport is organised on the basis of representation of clearly defined geopolitical entities, from village cricket eleven to national Olympic team, this aspect will be a part of sport.” (Polley, 1998, P.16) Prestige and an association with success in sport can be an important political resource, and politicians such as Prime Minister Wilson in England and President Pertini of Italy realised this as they tried to associate themselves with their countries success in the football’s World Cup. Sport often finds itself the subject of political action because of its identification with notions of indecent and uncivilised behaviour and the social order problems it poses.
The second reason why sport and politics impinge on each other in Allison’s general model for state involvement, is because “sport is divisive …. and an agent of social disorder.” (Allison, 1983, P.16) He claims that group identity, access to resources, wealth, and even problems of individual and public morality, arouses conflict between different interest groups. The original ‘Derby’ game of football between two parishes in Derby was a constant source of disorder and in many cities during the seventeenth century, football was banned because of the group identity conflict that resulted. The allocation of resources between different sports in traditional society also was the source of varying degrees of conflict, as is the question of morality concerning some sports, from the debate over the use of animals for human sport, to whether or not boxing should be banned, as it is in Sweden.
The Leicester Tigers rugby teams proposed tour of apartheid South Africa a few years age caused a disagreement between the local authorities and rugby officials over whether or not the tour was morally right because of apartheid South Africa’s history of human rights abuse. ‘But it is only sport,’ was the cry of those in favour of maintaining sporting contracts, but as John Williams writing for the Leicester Mercury (2003) points out, “sport does not constitute and entirely different realm, separated from some of the crucial, basic issues which face us all.” He also argues that the very shape and nature of sport actually depends upon political decisions and political cultures. For example, the differing opportunities for women to play sport in different countries, the long-time racial segregation of sportsmen and women in South Africa, and various national differences in approaches to the provision and organisation of sport, are all political questions that cannot simply be contained by sport. “Thus a common sense idea of politics and a broad view of history suggest that there exists a considerable and necessary politics of sport.” (Allison, 1983, P.17)
So why the frequent assertion by many sportsmen and politicians that sport is quite separate from politics and does not raise political issues. Allison suggests that one possible reason for this is; ‘it depends on what you mean by politics,’ but as we shall see, once formal consideration is given to the definition of politics, “it becomes immediately apparent that sport and politics cannot be mutually isolated.” (Allison, 1983, P.29)
The first of three interrelated conceptions of politics is the idea that “politics is simply a term for the matters involving government” (Allison, 1983, P30), i.e. a matter becomes political when the state gets involved, and regardless of the wishes of government, they are in some ways involved in sport. For instance, the economic dimension of sport requires decisions to be made by government about various aspects of this, for example, whether they represent commercial entities or charities has tax implications. And although they sometimes seek special treatment, sports are normally subject to the wider laws of the land, as Everton’s Duncan Ferguson found out when he was given a jail sentence for head-butting another player on the pitch a few years ago. The Olympics is an example of sportsmen gaining special treatment, as the state hosting the games is required by the International Olympic Committee to grant entry to all competitors even if wider laws might not allow it.
There are occasions when governments positively get involved with sport. For example the growing problem of football hooliganism and how to deal with it regularly draws attention from the Prime Minister. But the biggest cause of government involvement in sport in money, governments provide money for sport and directly and indirectly, sport provides money for government. 1986 estimates showed that VAT, betting duties, and other sports related revenues were bringing central government ï¿½2.4 billion annually.
“A second related view of politics is that it involves matters of power, of control and of influence over people’s behaviour.” (Allison, 1983, P.30) The view of ‘politics as power’ reminds us that sport often has its own internal ‘political’ struggles. Because most sport is controlled by a hierarchy of international and national ruling bodies, which have power and authority in that sport to determine the rules and the structure and rewards of competition etc, there will inevitably be some degree of conflict between groups at different levels of the hierarchy as well as some sort of struggle to gain key places in the sports administration for the reasons stated above. And relating to matters of influence over peoples behaviour; normally governments are the most influential agencies in a state, so this view of politics covers much the same ground as the first.
The third interrelated conception of politics “is that it is not bought into being by government or buy the existence of power relationships as such but by disputes. Politics then concerns the processes by which clashes of values, interests and strategies are resolved or eased.” (Allison, 1983, P.30). In this sense, modern sport generates an enormous amount of politics. For example, in South Africa there has been a great deal of conflict over who should control South African sports, the multi-racial sports bodies or the white-dominated sports bodies, which the government has more regularly sided with. Numerous changes happening the world simultaneously have had a big effect on sport. A greater amount of international sport has been made possible by the ease of jet transport, as has the demand for certain sports like soccer, cricket and athletics, by the improvement in television and satellite communications. Hence, if this third, or any other conception of politics is used, it is clear that sport encounters the political.
In this next part of the essay I will look at various examples of ways that politics and sport impinge on each other as well as discussing whether or not politics should have an association with sport. In doing so I will focus much of my attention on the recent cricket world cup held in Zimbabwe, which because of player protests and England pulling out of their opening match there, caused great amounts of controversy.