Politics and its Involvement in Sports

Written by Kevin Errasquin, GPI Undergraduate Fellow

2022 is a year that sport fans from all around the world should be ready to enjoy. Both the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the Winter Olympics in Beijing bring a sense of hope not only for the fans and athletes worldwide, but also for the hosting nations. This is a great economic opportunity that can recover resources that were lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, both Qatar and China have been accused of human rights violations, even to a point where participating athletes have protested in different ways to show their opposition against the hosting nations due to the ongoing allegations. While many individuals see sports as a vehicle for bringing everyone together, regardless of their race, political ideology, religion, or nationality, others see it as an opportunity to promote political relations, ideologies, nationalism, and economic development. This has created debates and disagreements between fans and athletes, who sometimes even consider that the main goal of sport events has never been to bring people together nor promote the beauty of the sport; but instead to mix political aspects through sports to gain a sense of superiority within the international order.  

In ancient Rome, the citizens of the empire were provided by their governments with the famous gladiator fights, which were held only a few times per year to keep a positive image in the eyes of the people, while encouraging them to pay their respective taxes so that these events could be held more often. In the present day, such events are not fully provided by the state, but the governments do have some degree of involvement in the sport world. For example, China is known for reaching agreements with other governments to build stadiums and other venues. Africa is the continent with the most venues constructed by Chinese enterprises, which demand that the state’s governments where the venue will be constructed recognize the legitimacy of The People’s Republic of China. This accomplishes the purpose of strengthening Chinese politics, granting access to African markets and resources, and gaining a considerable amount of support from various nations in international organizations. China has built stadiums and venues in more than fifty countries since it first started in the early 1980s, and it is in the process of operating in more countries, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.  

Aside from seeking political influence, sports have also been used to distract the international community from ongoing domestic issues. A great example of this is the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. In the year 2013, people in Brazil went out on the streets to protest issues such as inequality, violence, corruption, and others. These protests constantly turned violent and resulted in police oppression. Since the protests extended to 2014, a couple of months before the inauguration of the FIFA World Cup, the Brazilian government mobilized police and military forces around the cities to monitor the protestors, and launched drones in communities where protestors usually organized their demonstrations. In addition, the Brazilian government knew that the world would be watching, so they built billboards and walls to cover the slums in cities such as Rio de Janeiro to hide them away from visitors and media during the event. The sport event was seen as a success, and the country was praised by the international community rather than criticized for its domestic issues. However, the event turned out to be harmful for the government because it exposed more cases of corruption.  

Perhaps one of the most upsetting situations for fans is when the politics of certain states create a conflict that directly affects sport competitions and athletes. An example of this is when athletes in various sports are told by their coaches to refuse to participate against the athletes of a country because of tensions in the bilateral relations. To the misfortune of sportsmanship, this tends to occur quite often in various disciplines. One example was the refusal of the Indian National Cricket Team to play The Islamic Republic of Pakistan due to the political tensions between both nations since the mid-20th century. There have been other cases between different nations such as Lebanon and Israel, where various athletes have refused to play against one another because of the ongoing political tensions and past armed conflicts. In the London Olympic Games of 2012, Lebanese Judokas refused to share the practice mat with Israeli athletes and even requested the organizers of the event to place a wall or a division line to avoid any possible interaction with the Israeli athletes. In other cases, athletes will not refuse to compete against athletes from countries with tense bilateral relations, but the matches will reflect the anger and hate that haunt the people. This is demonstrated by the excessive amount of fouls, arguments, and aggressiveness from the athletes, as it has occurred throughout the years when South Korea has played North Korea in international soccer matches.  

By the recent events that have occurred in sport competitions, it seems like politicians will be attached to the world of sports for quite some time. For most fans and athletes, it is disappointing how international competitions have been misused for political purposes rather than for educating and bringing people together in the world. However, even when it seems like it is impossible to rule out political interests through sports, the fans and athletes can still use these competitions to educate their fellow citizens and competitors by pursuing the true spirit of sports, where instead of refusing to compete with each another, they share each other’s cultures and views. This might be challenging for nationals experiencing political and cultural tensions. but through sportsmanship and dialogue attitudes could change, leading to an environment of respect, cooperation, and sympathy. Sports have always brought hope and joy to their competitors and followers. It is well known that throughout the years, sports have served as tools to educate and bring people together, even with the involvement of politics, nationalism, and armed conflicts. This is why it will never be too late to keep that idea alive and flowing in the present and future. 

The views represented herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Policy Institute.