Sports: Politics by Other Means

Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong-Un has suggested that a North Korean delegation participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea, heralding a potential thaw in relations. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military strategist who lived through the French Revolution, wrote in his unfinished book On War that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. It is of course something of a trite aphorism, and hides a considerable amount of theory and philosophy. Yet as with all good aphorisms, it reveals something important: in this case, that the seeming differences between politics and war are not so significant as we had thought. Politics is about two sides negotiating the distribution of resources, sometimes along ideological lines, sometimes along economic lines; war is not all that different, save insofar as the rule of law is suspended, such as it may have existed before the outbreak of hostilities. Increasingly, we see sporting theatre being usurped for the purposes of political metaphor. The symbolism, and the language, is a kind of double speak that would be shocking in any other context, and useful for democracies, who don’t tend to actually fight each other

There have been several incidences this past year of sports and politics coming together. Just this morning, Kim Jong-Un of North Korea suggested that a delegation of North Korean athletes might participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea, as a gesture of goodwill. Throughout 2016 and 2017, an ongoing spat between the IOC and the IAAF with Russia has been dismissed by Moscow as political retribution for the invasion of Ukraine. FIFA, who operate the soccer world cup due to be held in Russia later this year, have faced withering criticism for failing to stand with their international peer sports associations despite prima facie significant evidence of soccer player doping. Paris St Germain (PSG)’s world record acquisition of Brazilian soccer player Neymar for €200m in the Summer was an explicit response to the Saudi led blockade of Qatar, whose government owns PSG. Donald Trump’s persistent criticism of the NFL over the ‘take a knee’ protests further reflected the power of sport to exercise people. Countless sports stars and teams have rejected invitations to the White House to avoid being seen to be supportive of a President with whom they disagreed. Those who met with the President were criticised.

I’ve written about Sports Politics before, and it strikes me that things are getting worse. What I mean by that is that it is becoming impossible for sports to not be political. This is particularly due to the commercialisation of sport, and the influence of advertisers and other paymasters. The aforementioned Neymar, for example, is sure that the World Cup in Qatar will be a tremendous success. FIFA, having been captured by Russia as part of the bidding process for the 2018 World Cup, doesn’t think there’s any issue with doping to be addressed: when the IOC issued a lifetime ban to FIFA World Cup organising chief Vitaly Mutko, FIFA said it made no difference. Gianni Infantino, who succeeded Sepp Blatter in 2016 as the President of the organisation, had wound up the ethics committee in May of 2017 saying that its work had been completed. The World Cup in 2018 is extremely important to Russian strategy – and to its leader, Vladimir Putin, who is seeking a fourth term as President in the election in March.

Political objectives can be achieved through sports. Donald Trump can demonstrate populism, patriotism and oppressed-white-male credentials by railing against black football players he (the cheek!) accuses of politicising sport. Kim Jong-Un can use the language of sports to engage, without really engaging. Europe and the West can embarrass and isolate Putin’s Russia by excluding them from global sporting events. For all the denials that the IOC and the IAAF may register about political motivations, the effects of their actions are clearly political; Kenya remains broadly attached to the IOC and the IAAF, despite massive evidence of systematic doping in that country. Abu Dhabi’s investment in Manchester City and other clubs, the Qarati investments in PSG and other football networks are all targeted at establishing legitimacy of one kind or another for their régime.

It is a triumvirate of actors that facilitate this power. The political leaders, the sports organisations and brokers, and the advertisers – the money men. The politicians seek security, political stability and legitimacy through popular sports. The sports organisations are businessmen, selling rights, access and endorsements to the highest bidders. The advertisers are seeking positive associations and endorsements for brands and products that they represent. As for the sports fans themselves? They are mesmerised, entranced by computer-mediated images of local and individual achievement, by stars who have become successful doing things that, with a bit of luck and talent, we might have done ourselves. These are stories of heroism and serendipity, of fulfilled dreams and obstacles overcome. They are inspirational. If only it wasn’t all so sordid.

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