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Some thoughts on sports

As I sit here on my sofa, trying to concentrate on writing whilst simultaneously watching Sweden defeat Britain in Men’s Curling (oddly, commentated on by Paula Radcliffe), I find myself wondering why the hell I care so much. I could hardly be described as a fan of my country – given the chance I would prefer to be a citizen of literally any other European country – but I find myself unable to watch England or Britain competing in a sporting event without screaming at the TV for whoever-it-is to run faster/kick it harder/hit the other guy harder (I was exaggerating about the screaming – I’m far too middle class).

Today at work, I wasted my entire day on a very passionate argument via email with a good friend of mine (Swiss), over which of our countries could really be described as the better sporting nation. It ended with us agreeing to a year long bet, with each of us being paid by the other when our country performs better in a sports event. As an anti-capitalist who is all for the abolition of tha nation state, this did not strike me as odd at the time.

To me, sport has replaced warfare as the weapon of choice in asserting one nation’s aggression towards and dominance over another. However, it seems to be something that was entirely of our own making rather than something that was forced on us… How did that happen? Stand in the wrong part of town on derby day and you’ll likely find yourself removed by the police for your own safety. The tribalism of sport is yet another thing that divides us, another obstacle to any truly unifying movement.


3 responses »

  1. Sport is going to be a must for any future radical political movement. I don’t know the history of how sport (esp. football) became so commercialized, but I do know that those promoting alternatives to capitalism are going to have to get their thinking caps on when it comes to winning over working-class support.

    Football didn’t just replace warfare. In one sense the current tribalism you talk about is a modern analogy of the late medieval/ Renaissance system of ‘retainers’. A lord was permitted by the king/ queen to retain a certain number of armed men. The men were paid for their loyalty to a particular noble, and they were given what was called a ‘livery’ – a specific uniform. This was a predecessor of the football kit. When retained men from opposing noblemen crossed each other in the street, it was very much like a modern derby day. (Just think of the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet – Montagues versus Capulets).

    On a different level, football replaced religion. Chants replace hymns, programmes replace Bibles, fellow supporters replace fellow parishioners etc. Also the whole idea of a set, weekly ritual. (Players line up in the tunnel, we cheer them, team photo shoot, sometimes national anthems, skippers exchange flags, coin toss, ref checks keepers are ready – all of these things are equally as ritualistic as any old-school Catholic Mass).

    And there are lots of problems arising from this. There’s a concept in Freud called ‘cathexis’ which means something like ‘investment of libido (desire)’. The passions that people (mainly men) invest in football means that they cathect profoundly certain teams, or players etc. And to undo cathexis in order to redirect that desire elsewhere, as Freud well knew, is a terribly difficult task. But it’s one in which radical activists might have to engage, should they decide that there’s no way of politicizing football.

    More generally, in terms of national teams, this links to fairly basic notions of nationalism. In concrete reality, a nation is riven by class divides (even if one doesn’t accept ‘class’ as a viable concept, simply substitute ‘inequality’ etc.). Nations in a strict sense don’t exist: they are imagined entities (but ones with very real effects). In ideological terms, a nation is a community to which I feel I belong which masks the fact that in reality this is no community – it’s a conglomeration of corporations and power structures in which I’m caught up. So a working-class woman who struggles to put bread on the table can support England, be patriotic, and feel part of a larger community; this sentiment of belonging then elides the conditions and relations which give rise to her poverty.

    This is why Marx, in a passage in the Grundrisse, says that it’s pointless to talk of nations in terms of geographical boundaries/ features and population figures. To really ‘know’ a particular nation, you have to understand who owns what, who works for whom, who has power, who doesn’t etc.

  2. This is all very interesting. I’d like to add a couple of thoughts.

    Firstly sport becomes very boring if you don’t have a team to support, and people supporting different teams is somewhat divisive by nature.

    Secondly, its interesting that on the one hand we speak out against the effects of globalisation because of its potential damage to the environment and its homogenization of culture, and on the other hand we speak out against nationalism because it is devisive.

    Thirdly no one has mentioned yet that sport can also be a unifying thing (when it isn’t taken too seriously). You could justifyably argue that the Olympics are a waste of money, but you can’t deny that they bring together people from a shit load of countries, which can’t be all bad.

    Also, I’ve got no major problem with football replacing religion because it involves people killing each other less (I’m confident the statistics will back me up on this one).

    I support my country in sport, not because I hate people from other countries, or even really because I feel I ‘belong’ to my country more, but just because its fun to support someone.

  3. John, nice comments. I’ll take them in the order in which you put them.

    1. I agree. Poses the interesting problem of what types of competition are acceptable and positive and which types are generally harmful.

    2. Here I’d want to see the two as mutually constituting. 9/11 attacks are instructive here. One of the ring-leaders was an Egyptian architecture student (Mohamed Atta) who was enraged when, returning to Cairo from Hamburg where he’d been studying, he found that poor Egyptians were being dispossessed of their homes in order for American tourist centres to replace them. Ironically, the buildings they replaced were deemed not sufficiently ‘Egyptian looking’ and so tourists would feel that they had not truly had the ‘Egypt experience’. The poor were then paid shit wages and wore stereotypical Egyptian costumes and performed for tourists.

    So it’s a little more complicated. Yes, globalization can homogenize cultures, but it can also force them into cultural stereotypes. Some countries end up viciously nationalist in the hope of securing some sort of identity for themselves (usually smaller countries without much power) – and the 1918 Versailles treaty has a lot to answer for here. Others have identity thrust upon them.

    3. I agree. Pre-earthquake Haiti offered many examples of this, because government officials tried to limit access to football pitches. What began as small-scale protest transformed into revolutionary action, organised via football teams etc. But as for the Olympics, yes, okay, it brings people together. A cynic might then reply that it’s an elementary example of ideology: we all play international happy families while the real divisions in the world insidiously destroy us.

    Football and religion. I wasn’t suggesting it was a bad thing. Just an observation – ritual lives on. Religion in a broad sense has not disappeared, just transmuted.


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