Is there a more antiempirical notion than the idea that sport is a distraction from political life?
Following the English football team losing the final of the European cup on penalties last month, persons embittered by the political activitism of team members signalled their pleasure at the outcome on various mediums. Natalie Elphicke, conversative MP for Dover wrote in a whatsapp group “would it be ungenerous to suggest [Marcus] Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics”. Political commentator Darren Grimes tweeted at the same player “penalties not politics from now on, aye?”.
The reaction was reminiscent of when Fox News political pundit, Laura Ingraham, demanded that basketball player LeBron James “Shut up and dribble” when he dared to criticise the then president of the United States, Donald Trump. More recently the decision of athlete Gwen Berry to turn her back to provoked outrage in various media spheres. “It is exciting to know that politicisation of the summer olympics has already begun! This is great!” another Fox commentator Kennedy exclaimed sarcastically. “When I like to watch sports I actually like to watch sports”. Another commentator opined. “I know that sports are supposed to be a distraction from everyday life, it’s what the goal of sports is, in fact”.
You would think that pundits and commentators would get fed up of articulating this repetitive chant. Curiously, there are many who seem to be labouring under the impression that sport is a politics-free zone. Comedian Frankie Boyle articulated this received wisdom when he said on a BBC panel show “Football’s just distraction, distracting you from the real world, distraction from the war. Instead… they should replace football with just a guy bringing out a big bunch of keys and going ‘look at the shiny-shiny’”. Literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote “The opium of the people is now football”.
It’s hard to decide which is stranger to me, the notion that this area of life is some kind of political vacuum or the normative statement that it should be. The evidence of overlaps between political and sporting activity is as numerous as the rarely-challenged assertion that these are separate domains of life.
Colin Kaepernick’s protest for example of reminiscent of the highly controversial political activism of Muhammad Ali, regarded by many as the greatest athlete ever. It’s also in the tradition of Tommie Smith and John Carlos who also demonstrated who symbolically raised their fists in a black power salute in the 1968 Olympics.
Speaking of the Olympics, this manner of activism is not confined to the anglosphere or to individual athletes. At the same Olympic event, on the other side of the cold war divide, Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská symbolically turned her head away from the Soviet flag on the podium. Both the US and the USSR boycotted Olympics held in the others country throughour this period.
Sport and politics also intersect whenever sport is used for nation building. Nelson Mandela famously used the rugby world cup as an opportunity to unify South Africans. The German Democratic Republic’s doping programme was politically motivated (I never said that all political sporting actions are noble). In our own country, when the GAA was founded it was as much a political organisation as it was a sporting one.
From Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest against police brutality to James McClean’s repeated refusals to wear a poppy to trans athletes seeking to compete in the gender of their choice political controversy over athletes is a persistent feature of the media landscape. This reveals sport to be highly visible site of conflict in my view.
Kevin Volf is a PhD Researcher in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, University of Limerick.