Sport Politics: Acquiring and Trading State Legitimacy Through Sport

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Qatar has been one of the most acquisitive countries in the world in its thirst for legitimacy through sports

Liverpool won yesterday. I don’t like soccer. I don’t watch it (unless Liverpool are playing), I don’t play the game, nor have I any interest in its tactics, development, or the circus that surrounds the professional game. But because Liverpool won yesterday, I feel better today. I have been a fan of Liverpool since I was eight or nine years old, when in order to belong in my class at school, I chose a team (there were two choices; the other was Manchester United. I hate Manchester United.). Even though I’m much older now, and deeply understand the naivety of choosing to support a foreign team playing a foreign game where grown men (often racist, always straight, and sometimes with a penchant for violence) kick a ball around a field, it reaches deep inside of me when they win, and when they lose. Sport is an extremely powerful social force, and in the past thirty years, bankers and politicians have learned how to control that force in an unprecedented way.

Quoting Houlihan and Green, Jonathan Grix describes sport as offering governments an …’extremely malleable resource to achieve…a wide variety of domestic and international goals.’ (Sport Politics p.19) There are several domestic objectives that can be advanced through sport – such as healthcare, community development, and religious conflict. The objective that interests me, however, is that of State Legitimacy: how can sport advance the claims of a set of institutions – the State – to dominion? Part of this is answered in what Grix calls SMEs, or Sports Mega-Events, such as the Olympic Games and the World Cup. Host one of those, the logic goes, and you’re a proper country. That particular calculus is all well and good for emerging countries – such as Brazil, or Qatar – but in places like Germany (host of the 2006 World Cup) and Britain (host of the 2012 Olympic Games), they are already ‘proper countries’. So where are the benefits of hosting an SME for a country like Britain or Germany? Russia is an altogether more complicated story – a country with a long and deep history, its hosting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup is prestigious, certainly. But where does that prestige value accrue? Similarly of interest is the trade in SMEs, a shady practice that has some light thrown upon it in recent years with corruption scandals at FIFA and the IOC, and various ins and outs at the FIA (Formula One motor racing).

Another part of the answer to the question of how sport can build legitimacy is in understanding the importance of actually winning things. The narrative of exceptionalism builds pride and soft power, an attractive notion to which people will attach themselves. Sports, however, is ostensibly a personal thing, and therefore in a sense arbitrary when it comes to politics. Politics, or nationality, can’t usually make you run faster, jump higher, or think quicker than others, though there are strong arguments for genetics being a strong determinant of ‘talent’. Environment is important too –  proper training facilities and support programmes are essential for success. Drugs, however, can certainly make people perform better. How and why states enable their sporting representatives to build advantages therefore is worthy of investigation – East Germany in the 1980’s, China in the 1990s, and Russia in recent years are fascinating examples.

Sports are aspirational, representational, and associative. What you play defines your class. Who you support defines your ambitions. Are you local, or global? Are you a champion or a challenger, a king or a prince? The choice between Liverpool and Manchester United was one at the time between the all-conquering champions, and the eager and hungry challengers. I chose the champions, whose time at the top of course faded, and most of the period since then has been pretty miserable (though not quite all!), but my association – my identity – has persisted. The motivations of men and women are not merely economic; they are more complex than that. Bill Clinton became US President in 1992 with his strategeist James Carville summarising their campaign as ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ That same year, my friend Séan Solon had become president of the Student’s Union at our University on the similarly narrow promise of 20p for a cup of coffee. Perhaps in 2017 and with the accession of Donald Trump we are actually leaving such cynicism behind. It’s not just the economy, it’s about how we feel; maybe it’s about identity, stupid. So true!

Apart from Grix’ Sport Politics (2016), I’m also reading Houlihan and Malcolm’s Sport and Society (2016), Houlihan and White’s The Politics of Sports Development (2002), Riordan and Kruger’s The International Politics of Sport in the 20th Century (1999), and Barrie Houlihan’s The Government and Politics of Sport (1991). I’m hoping to build a deeper understanding for sport as a source of legitimacy, and soft power; I’m also curious to know how countries without such resources are impacted – is this a zero sum game? Does Qatar’s athletic ascendancy negatively impact on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia? How has South Africa’s post-apartheid development been aided by the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and the FIFA World Cup in 2010? How does China’s new found love for professional soccer figure in its development?

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