The Double-Edged Sword of Sport and Political Protest

The potential for sport to be used in an effective manner for political protest is growing as sport gains greater prominence on the international stage. Increased political and commercial interest in mega sporting events – like the Olympics – is testament to that, as is the dramatic rise in the attempt to use of sport to further social development initiatives, particularly in low-income countries.

In 2008, there are some signs that the ever-globalized mass media is helping to portray sport-led political protest to a large audience. Yet, in all likelihood, the effectiveness of the protests surrounding the 2008 Olympics in China will be short-term and fade away in the memory. The Chinese government and International Olympic Committee (IOC) will heavily censor bottom-up protest (which is less likely to be covered by the mainstream media in any event unless it comes in the form of a terrorist attack). And state-led protests (which does interest the media more) inevitably wither in the face of the growing commercial and political importance of China.

Olympic Rings

Photo by Prakhar.

Sport and Political Protest

The use of sport in political protest has a long history. Governments have used sporting boycotts to highlight various political issues, ranging from the exclusion of apartheid South Africa1 to tit-for-tat boycotting of the Olympics during the Cold War.The effectiveness of these protests has been mixed; many agree that sport was an important factor in pressuring the South African government to dismantle policies of apartheid but the political posturing associated with Olympic boycotts was less so.

Sports sociologists see sport – in many ways a natural arena for protest to occur because of the conflict/battle inherent to sport – as displaying in the words of John Hargreaves an “emancipatory potential.” This is evident in three ways. The first is the deliberate use of sporting events to highlight mass-level political causes and disrupt dominant state practices. This can take different forms – from violently hijacking an international sporting event (such as the storming of the Israeli athletes’ accommodation in the 1972 Olympics) to subtler shows of dissent against the government (supporting of “other” national teams at matches involving “your” national team as happened in South Africa during the apartheid and East Germany in the Cold War era). In societies where avenues to political protest are forcibly closed, sport might appear to afford a reasonably successful path for those disenfranchized to demonstrate against those in power. The BBC reported in 2000 that soccer matches were one of the very few vehicles in Afghanistan during the Taliban era which provided space to dissent against, and slightly disrupt dominant laws.

The second is as a form of political enablement. The use of sport by local communities against occupiers in colonial times (ironically often being introduced by colonial rulers as a tool to distract the local population from political protest) created rare opportunities for resistance leaders to meet openly to discuss protest plans and to disseminate their views to the masses. This happened frequently in pre-independence Africa and more recently in Croatia before the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

The third relates to the playing of “pre-modern sports” (largely before the creation of ordered sports with codes that began in the nineteenth century) to disrupt dominant economic and political practices. Sports history has comprehensively documented occasions where uncodified sports were played as a protest against unpopular laws seen to exploit the poorest in society. For example, during the 17th and 18th century in Britain, pre-modern soccer was sometimes played in order to dismantle fences around recently enclosed land.2 It is no surprise then that the state was often keen to suppress the sport, and legislation was often proposed and passed to ban this uncodified version of soccer throughout British history.

In the UK today, both modern and pre-modern soccer has been used as a means of political demonstration against what protesters see as dominant socio-political and economic structures. For instance, uncodified, “pre-modern” soccer was widely advertized on anti-capitalist web-sites and literature before the 2002 Mayday demonstrations in London. The main objective of using the pre-modern game in the 2002 demonstrations was to use soccer balls as a means of directing protestors in an unpredictable direction where to go. This was particularly important to the protesters in London in 2002 as they had been enclosed at Oxford Circus by police the previous year.3 Similar versions of soccer appear to have been used successfully in other parts of the world; one example is in Nigeria, when youths in 2001 played soccer in order to block streets from police, thus temporarily allowing the continuation of a general strike.

The prevalence of sport and political protest appears to be growing; authors Jackson and Haigh note that one possible dimension of sport and protest (terrorism at sports events) has seen 171 sport-related terrorist attacks between the 1972 Munich Olympics and 2005.4 Other more conventional forms of protest also accompany most significant sporting events. This could be as a result of the use of the mass media to transform local protests into a global phenomenon, especially when the regime they report on is politically unpopular in the country in which it is reported.

Silencing Protest and Opposition

Yet, how effective has sport really been in advancing political protest and change? When it comes to the less powerful using sport for protest, states and international sports federations tend to indignantly point to the way that sport should not be used for political purposes. The treatment and exclusion of Tommy Smith and John Carlos (following their “black-fist” protest) on their return to the United States after the 1968 Olympics is a reminder of this. Importantly, sport can also be conceived as a double-edged sword that is not only used to protest and highlight against dominant political and economic practices (neo-liberalism and the compartmentalizing concept of nationalism) but also is deliberately but also often unwittingly used by powerful institutions (such as governments) to maintain it. This is particularly the case when mainstream media are quick to condemn or ignore political protest at sport by individuals/local communities. The Italian philosopher, Umberto Eco echoes this argument, arguing that the media coverage of events such as the Olympics deflects attention away from “harsh” political “realities,” where sports debate replaces political debate.

The corporate control of the media is an important element to the “distortion” of protestors. For example, there are instances of powerful groups attempting to hide the reporting of political protest by marginalized groups. This is probably the result of sporting bodies insisting on the autonomy of sport and politics, but the following instance within a global soccer tournament is worthy of attention. At the 1998 soccer World Cup in France, a match between the United States and Iran witnessed a huge political demonstration against the Katami regime. Details of the protest failed to make its way onto the television screens or into mass print media. However, a journalist for the specialist soccer magazine, When Saturday Comes observed that:

About 15 minutes before kick-off huge anti-Katami banners and T-shirts decorated with pictures of Maryana Rajavi, one of the leaders of the Iranian opposition, start to appear around the ground. Three minutes before kick-off a large orange balloon with a portrait of Maryana Rajavi suspended from it floats across the pitch, bobs over the heads of the Iranian players and is eventually captured by the referee on the half way line. You look down at the TV monitor on your workstation to get a close-up of the image, but the screen is showing pictures of some pretty American girls in the crowd…. Later a U.S. photo-journalist will paraphrase an old ice-hockey joke, ‘tonight I was watching a political protest when all of a sudden a soccer game broke out,’ but television viewers around the world will have known nothing about it. They will not have seen the dozens of twelve foot by five foot banners denouncing the Tehran regime… or the arrival of special stewards in black-and-blue uniforms, or the tussles between protesters and the CRS that went on continually for two hours…. After the game some … journalists are appalled by what the TV has chosen … not to show. They cannot believe that such censorship would be exercised in a western democracy.’5

Similar examples of non-reporting or ignoring of political protest is also associated with the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and 1978 soccer World Cup in Argentina. In Mexico, over 300 students were shot dead for demonstrating about political conditions in Mexico ten days before the Olympics were staged; the government did not want the portrayal of the country sullied so they decided that direct action was required rather than to let the protests linger for weeks. At the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, the government put up murals by the ground depicting peaceful scenes for international television audiences, to cover evidence of poverty and protest against a military regime responsible for the human rights abuses of thousands of Argentineans. Both events failed to generate any significant protest from governments – or the world media.

So, sport is useful to divert attention away from political demonstrations and political reality, both in terms of the domestic population – and the international community. More debatable is the eagerness with which the British and American governments (with the help of soccer authorities) have re-established soccer in the war-torn societies of Afghanistan and Iraq. Undoubtedly, one of the hopes of promoting the playing of soccer in Afghanistan, by Western governments and FIFA, is that not only will it possibly “unify” disparate ethnic communities, but that it may also deflect from the harsh political debates in the country, especially the reported growth of anti-American sentiments.

Research suggests that sport, has been particularly useful in enhancing the economic neoliberal system, despite instances of protest. In terms of supporting global capitalism, rampant commercialization is clearly evident in the modern Olympics where sponsorship deals are worth tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. Lenovo, a partner with IBM, not only sponsored the global tour of the Olympic torch, it designed the torch itself.

To summarize, sport can be viewed as a “double-edged sword” that provides an opportunity to demonstrate and enact social and political change and is also a vehicle to maintain dominant political and economic practices. This is not always at the expense of the less powerful in society but the examples given above indicate that sport is used more often as a tool for the powerful than one that benefits local communities. This should not surprise us; sport is not a monolithic concept – it is seen – and interacts – in different ways with different groups in society; it allows groups to protest whilst also consuming dominant practices.

Bejing’s Legacy

So, what legacy can we expect from the sport/protest dimension at the 2008 Olympics in China? It is a games that was initially sold (by China) as a means to improve its human rights record. Inevitably, the games were going to attract attention to China’s record within Tibet. The demonstrations at the start of the year around the world – accompanying the route of the Olympic torch – are testament to that. The popular protests over Tibet were quickly followed protestations by world leaders that they would boycott the opening or closing ceremonies.

Other forms of protest have coalesced around those who have been evicted from their homes and businesses, with the Olympics being used as an excuse for this state action. China has also seen forms of protest from disenfranchized communities with Xinjiang province; indeed, bomb blasts in China at the time of writing, has been attributed to Muslim discontents from this region.

However, how long-lasting will these protests be in initiating substantive change in China and around the policies that protesters are campaigning against? Unless there is a sustained level of spectacular protest the bottom-up campaigns will not linger for long in the public (and much less, media) conscience. The Chinese government has been swift to react against these protests – especially those surrounding Tibet.

Already at the state level – where the media are naturally drawn towards – world leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy have quietly dropped their intention to boycott the opening or closing ceremonies. Some bloggers are already comparing China to Mexico in 1968 because of their response to popular protest and the willingness of the media and statesmen to largely ignore popular political protests. In terms of specific political protests the chances of change are very slim; those that have been evicted – with the Olympics often being used as a spurious excuse – have already been largely ignored by the globalized media. The case of independence for Xinjiang will probably generate some media coverage but lead to international condemnation from governments. Visitors to China will also find it difficult to protest as very strict regulations will reduce such a threat.

Even if protest were to occur on a much larger level than presently predicted, the mainstream media is unlikely to report it, probably with the support of the IOC who will be unwilling to see the event descend into a political circus. As the examples with the 1968 Olympics and 1978/1998 soccer World Cups demonstrate, governments and sports federations have been very effective at silencing political protest by less powerful groups.

Roger Levermore is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Liverpool and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.