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The Correlation Between Sports and Politics

Sports are a form of entertainment that breaks through the hearts of billions of people all around the world. Yet, they also represent the social and cultural identity of groups of people. Sports can become the platform for social change, the arena where shaping public opinion is possible and the chance to spread messages. The latter characteristics are shared by a seemingly distant set of activities: politics. Sports and politics have together shaped the world that we live in today, contributing to fundamental changes but also amplifying underlying problems. Despite the notorious quote "sports and politics don't mix" by former U.S. athlete Eric Haiden, sports and politics are closely intertwined.

This essay delves into the intricate and fascinating correlation between politics and sports with the aim of illustrating how the two have influenced each other over the course of the years. The first part of the essay will illustrate how sports can become the occasion to spark patriotism, political consciousness, and social changes. In the subsequent part of the essay, it will be demonstrated the other side of the debate. In fact, the essay will analyze how sports can also become a vehicle for harmful political stances. The final part of the essay will be devoted to final conclusions.


A Different Portrayal

Many countries, perhaps the most unlikely, make great efforts for shaping future generations of successful athletes. East Germany and Cuba, despite facing serious political and economic problems, devoted an impressive amount of their national resources to make sure that their citizens could one day become successful in different sports (Cha, 2009). The reason for that, according to most scholars, is that during sports competitions and events, countries have the opportunity to portray a positive and successful image of themselves (Cha, 2009). The citizens of the country, and spectators from all over the world, will have the opportunity to observe a display of strength. This fosters a positive message to others, shaping the perception of the country among people. The 2022 FIFA World Cup hosted by Qatar is another example to show how one country might use sports events to display an image of splendor and wealth. Qatar, a relatively small country, made impressive efforts to build innovative, eco-friendly, and advanced structures made to host the football games.


Figure 1: Qatar World Cup Stadium (Loulidi, 2022)

As mentioned, governments might use sports events to display an ideal image of their country. This entails physical changes, such as the construction of new infrastructures and the development of advanced technologies. Yet, sometimes also political changes are necessary before hosting sports events with global reach. Sports events act, in fact, as an open door inviting millions of people, and governments, to scrutinize how the hosting country is behaving. Qatar, despite the advanced and impressive stadiums it built, was left surrounded by controversies regarding the poor working conditions of the workers involved and many scandals about corruption. Particularly significant is the role played by Mohamed Bin Hammam, Qatar’s top soccer official, in securing Qatar's right to host the event. The UK Sunday Times has in fact revealed behind the scenes of the FIFA World Cup organization, bringing to light the multiple cash handouts used to make sure that soccer officials would choose Qatar as the hosting country (Blake and Calvert, 2015). This causes one to wonder if it is always wise to believe in the image that a country puts forward on such occasions.

However, sometimes changes do happen. In 2008 China hosted the Olympic Games and the massive physical change in the country was followed by significant political changes made to appease the International Community (Cumings, 2001). China made adjustments in terms of their foreign policies, particularly in Sudan and Burma, aligning with the requests of the rest of the countries and NGOs. This was the result of heavy pressure from key figures of the International Community, such as current King Charles III, U.S. President Bush, and the United Nations (Cha, 2009).


Sports Create Nations

Moreover, winning and supporting athletes during sports events creates a feeling of unity, which leads to the creation of a feeling of patriotism, reinforcing the identity of a population. This is made particularly evident by the astonishing number of viewers that are captivated by sports events (Gift and Miner, 2017). This renewed pride and sense of belonging are capable of shaping the cultural identity of a nation. National pride is in fact essential when it comes to understanding how united a nation is, especially when a nation has been recently unified. For instance, the unification of the football clubs from North Yemen and South Yemen was the first step towards the unification of the country as a whole (Stevenson and Alaug, 2000). Sports become an arena to display political messages also for countries opposing the occupation with the aim of asserting their independence. In Ireland, sports became a channel used to express the desire for political independence from the rest of the United Kingdom (Houlihan, 1994). The Gaelic Athletic Association, established in 1884, was one of the methods to promote Irish traditions to impose Irish identity against English rule. The sense of pride for one’s own identity and nation and the desire for independence was incarnated by Olympic Winner Peter O’Connor who waved the Irish flag despite being forced to play under the British Olympic Council on the occasion of the 1906 Olympic Games in Athens (Brownwell, 2008).


Figure 2: Irish athlete Peter O'Connor (Irish National Archive, 1906)

Political and Social Messages in Sports

Changes need an engine that pushes people to act and change and sports can become said engine. Social movements need an arena and sports events with billions of spectators who are attracted to them are the perfect venue to display social protests. During the medal ceremony of the Athletics Olympic Games of 1068, two African-American athletes, named Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised a black-gloved fist in a gesture called “Black Power Salute”. The salute was a symbolic response against the unequal conditions suffered by black people. The then President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, commented that the gesture was in contrast with the apolitical spirit of the Olympic Games, yet made no objections against the Nazi salute made during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (Churchill, 1983).

Sports Committees are also not indifferent to political news and events and do not keep a neutral stance. This was made evident in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as multiple Russian players were told to compete without national identifications replacing their flag with a white one. Moreover, FIFA suspended all Russian clubs from competing, and numerous other sanctions came from different committees (Næss, 2022). The sum of the different responses condemning the Russian invasion brings the International Community closer and shows social and political support toward the Ukrainian victims. However, it also underlines the hypocrisy of the International Community which has blatantly ignored the massive human rights violations committed by other countries which are nevertheless allowed to host and take part in sports competitions. Sports become just another political tool used to demonstrate alliance and support to certain governments, for instance, the Qatari or Israeli governments. The two countries have in fact been involved in unjustifiable human rights violations but have not received any sanctions for their behaviors by sports organizations.


Manipulative Use of Sports

Sports, as any tool, can become capable of influencing people, especially if used by a certain category of powerful individuals. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister during four governments between 1994 and 2011, gained much of his political consensus from passionate fans of the AC Milan Football Club, which he owned until 2017. Berlusconi was also known for his football metaphors through which he was capable of winning support from millions of Italians (Porro and Russo, 2012). Berlusconi was undoubtedly successful in hiding, or at least, distracting people from the many scandals of corruption, prostitution, and Mafia association behind his many other businesses, including sports.

Sports were also used to negatively influence political stances and assert a sense of superiority, especially by totalitarian regimes. The Soviet Union invested resources in promoting rigorous disciplines such as gymnastics which embodies principles of discipline, collective achievement, and self-control. Said principles were also the foundation of the Soviet Union regime and it was also through sports that the power of the Soviet Union was established (Parks, 2006). It is not possible not to mention the propaganda use that the Nazi regime made of sports events, such as the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Adolf Hitler did in fact use the Olympic Games and other sports events to impose the Nazi philosophy of Aryan superiority by trying to showcase the success of German athletes (Kessler, 2011).


Figure 3: The Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games (Clarkson, 1968)

Conclusions

In conclusion, it is fair to say that sports and politics do mix. Often times the relationship between sports and politics has a positive connotation to it. In fact, sports are a vehicle for national pride and unity, even capable of bringing people together and fighting foreign control to assert independence. Sports are also an engine for change, both physical and political. Many countries have in fact changed their policies and attitudes prior to the hosting of important sports events which are in fact a display of a country's wealth and politics. However, sometimes what a country chooses to display on the occasion of these grand sports events might be misleading.

On the other hand, it is important to note that sports, as a phenomenon with global reach and emotional connotation, can be used to foster propaganda by totalitarian regimes. sometimes, politicians might also use sports as an influencing mechanism to impose one's image in the political debate and blur the line between entertainment and politics.

The scenario is varied and the relationship between sports and politics is deeper and richer than one would imagine. Despite what one might think about such a correlation, it is impossible to deny that Eric Heiden was wrong when he said that "sports and politics don't mix".


Bibliographical References

Blake, H. and Calvert, J. (2015). The ugly game: the corruption of FIFA and the Qatari plot to buy the World Cup. Simon and Schuster.


Brownwell, S. (2008). Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China. Rowman & Littlefield.


Cha, D. V. (2009) A Theory of Sport and Politics. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 26(11), 1581-1610.


Churchill, E. J. (1983). The Olympic Story. Grolier Enterprises Inc.


Cumings. (2001). China Goes for the Gold. The Nation, 7.


Gift, T., & Miner, A. (2017). DROPPING THE BALL: The Understudied Nexus of Sports and Politics. World Affairs, 180(1), 127–161.


Houlihan, B. (1994). Sport and International Politics. Harvester Wheatsheaf; 1st edition.


Kessler, M. (2011) Only Nazi Games? Berlin 1936: The Olympic Games between Sports and Politics. Socialism and Democracy, 25(2).


Næss, E. H. (2002). The Neutrality Paradox in Sport. Palgrave Macmillan.


Porro, N. & Russo, P. (2000) Berlusconi and Other Matters: the Era of ‘Football-Politics'. Journal of Modern Italian Studies.


Parks, J. (2007). in Stephen Wagg, David L. Andrews eds. East Plays West: Sport and the Cold War. Routledge


Stevenson, T. B., & Alaug, A. K. (2000). Football in Newly United Yemen: Rituals of Equity, Identity, and State Formation. Journal of Anthropological Research, 56(4), 453–475


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1 comentario


Carl Fielder
Carl Fielder
11 hours ago

Sports serve as a powerful platform for cultural expression and societal change, paralleling political influence. Examining this relationship illuminates how sports, like rugby facilitated through centaurs rugby, embody values and promote unity. Understanding these dynamics enriches appreciation for sports as a catalyst for positive social impact, echoing the transformative potential observed in rugby communities worldwide.

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Sofia Grossi

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