Repoliticising Sports

Thursday, 13th September 2007 at 7:56 UTC 2 comments

The recent football match between Israel and England is not the only thing that’s made me want to confront this issue, neither is the turning away by the British government of the Palestinian Under-19 football team. As it happens, the Olympics is partly behind this line of thoughts. It seems a sad fact of our increasingly commodified and depoliticised lives that sports is becoming morally separated from the reality to which it is inescapably linked.

For those who need a little background to the case, last Saturday was supposed to see two very political football games. The Palestinian Under-19 team, a group of lads of about the right age and background to be suicide bombers, but who are engaged in something altogether more commendable, were due to play Bolton Wanderers, as part of a tour which would have seen them play several high-level professional clubs, mostly in the North West of England.

A worthy project, with much charitable backing, it wasn’t even the usual story of Israel’s preventing them from leaving; the British state wouldn’t even hand them Visas to let them into this country. Presumably this was done under guidance from Israel or pressure from the Zionists of this country, but the given reason was pretty much “we don’t believe their part of a football team, we think they’re trying to pull a fast one and we don’t believe they’ll return to Palestine at the end”.

This would not have had half the irony it does have, had the match at Bolton not coincided with another football match: one where the team in question has no right to claim the prerequisites for involvement in the tournament in question. Israel is not in Europe. Why the hell, therefore, is it in the European Cup qualifiers? It is clearly in Asia or the Middle-East, way beyond the edge of Europe and surrounded by countries which rightfully make no claim to being European. If it played its sports against Arab nations then maybe some healing and reconciliation might be possible on that front. (By the way, this observation also applies to Eurovision).

Anyhow, the Israelis came and played their football match, with only a tiny protest outside (I’m sorry, but 250 people is pathetic when protesting against a match with tens of thousands of spectators). The Israeli government once again managed to present itself with an air of respectability that it should never be allowed to claim while it still takes away all hope of dignity from the lives of so many Palestinians.

Its not as simple as just having a fun game of football. Its as if to most people, ignoring the politics is somehow a neutral position to take. But by sending a team to Britain and performing in front of a crowd of thousands (or millions, given TV coverage), the Israelis have portrayed themselves as civilized and morally sufficient. By ignoring the political implications, they don’t just go away, they just get worked out exactly as those in power would have them be worked out.

People keep trying to claim that the Olympics isn’t political. They want to accept the glossy images on their TV screens without questioning the human cost behind those games. From the people physically removed from their homes, the communities shattered to build huge stadiums, the homeless people cleared from the streets*, the workers killed building these shiny monstrosities of national pride, to the child gymnasts forced to enroll in grueling 7 hour a day, 6 day a week training regimes from as young as 6 years of age (sometimes thousands of miles from home) and athletes who will suffer severe depression when the events are over.

When the Olympics go to Beijing, many will claim that its fine because this isn’t a political event. The thing is, by saying that, we allow our governments to continue to make China look like an OK trading partner, despite the fact that millions are slaving away in factories across China making consumer goods and clothes for western markets. If we don’t contest this politics, the political message simply gets louder, clearer, and more in tune with the image that states wish to portray: nothing to see here, business as normal, switch off and enjoy the game.

So question what you see a sporting event, especially an international one. What is the reality that is being hidden behind the veneer of a football match? What are the sponsors trying to hide? Is it really business as usual? Is the image of civilisation being shown on the pitch anything like the reality away from the cameras? Sports always has been political. But in today’s society, where everything is to be consumed and nothing is to be challenged, we need to take a fresh perspective, sit up and watch closely, lest we be hoodwinked into perceiving those involved in sports as being somehow more legitimate because of it.


* In Mexico City, they shot thousands of street kids dead, and thankfully there was some measure of political outrage. But when the Atlanta police department arrested all the homeless in the days before their games and bused them to New York, with the knowledge that they would never make it back in time to by an eyesore on the streets of the now immaculately clean city, the news stations didn’t want to know and most of us just sat there watching, oblivious.

** You maybe should be concerned when an event gives its name to a mental condition, but  Post-Olympic Depression Syndrome affects many athletes when the 4 year cycle of preparation and competition ends, the cameras are switched off, and they are all but forgotten.


Entry filed under: Community, Human Rights, Olympics, Participation, Politics, Sports.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Duck  |  Thursday, 13th September 2007 at 8:48 UTC

    ‘the child gymnasts forced to enroll in grueling 7 hour a day, 6 day a week training regimes from as young as 6 years of age (sometimes thousands of miles from home)’
    Interesting – my cousin was a strong contender for the British Olympic Gym team, ’till she decided to drop out when she was 14. Wasn’t exactly thousands of miles from home, but she was at boarding school on a scholarship for her gym from about age 7, & training pretty well all the time when she wasn’t in school. She enjoyed it at the time & still thinks it was worth doing.

    ‘Post-Olympic Depression Syndrome’? This looks an awful lot like the medicalisation of a normal response to life.
    At my level, it’s well-recognised in running folklore that many people will feel down after training & competing in a big race. Some of this is actually explainable in physiological terms – intense exercise does things to your brain (simply put – endorphins) which make people feel happy & are actually quite addictive. Stop doing that suddenly, & you will feel rubbish for a bit. Combine that with the sort of progressive overload training that an Olympic training programme will entail, & it’s hardly surprising that people feel down afterwards. I hardly think it needs a ‘syndrome’ to justify it, any more than you need ‘Pre Dissertation Student Stress Syndrome’.

    Wanting to push yourself as far as you can in competitive sport isn’t in itself a bad thing, any more than wanting to get as far academically as you can. Writing about the way sport gets distorted by money etc is worth doing, but I’m not sure why competitive elite sport is a bad thing in itself.

  • 2. Graham Martin  |  Thursday, 13th September 2007 at 12:06 UTC

    I was mostly expecting people to pick out the whole Eastern-Bloc/China concern. The Post Olympic thing is more focused on the effects that being the centre of attention, then suddenly being Jo Bloggs can have on ‘minor’-sport athletes who’s only moment of fame might be at the Olympics. Can you name ‘our’ gold medal winning Curling team? Most people knew at least one of their names the day after they won.

    Its not the sports thats the problem, in deed, sports can be a really great political builder as well as divider (like bringing the Palestinian U19 side to Britain). Its just that many people can’t see the political messages implicit in the events they are watching, and this isn’t just limited to sport, but it was the example which comes to mind.


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