University Professor answers your questions | Sport and Politics

Dear Burnet News Club members,

My name is Matt Taylor and I’m an historian based at the International Centre for Sports History Culture in De Montfort University, Leicester. Thanks so much for such interesting and thoughtful questions.

Is it possible to fully and completely separate sport and politics?

From: Sceptic cookie | Michael Faraday School

That’s a really good question. The short answer is ‘no’.

Sport and politics have been closely linked from the time of the Greeks and Romans. In the last hundred years or so that connection has become more apparent due to the increased role of sport on the international stage. The creation and growth of the Olympic Games, the football World Cup and other international sporting events have provided an opportunity for political leaders to promote a positive image of their nations.

But because these events are so widely followed, they have also become a focus for rivalries and disagreements between nations and political systems. The Cold War boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and the controversy over sporting links with Apartheid South Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s are good examples of this.

The idea that sport could be separated from political issues rests on a rather narrow definition of both ‘sport’ and ‘politics’. If we consider sport to be a private activity that exists in its own independent world then it could perhaps be considered non-political. But this doesn’t reflect reality. Even at the smallest local level, many of us probably use facilities provided and funded by councils or governing bodies.

The higher one goes, the more likely it is that political bodies will intervene in sport. At the elite level, most national governments are involved in sports policy and leaders regularly comment on sporting success and failure.

And if we consider politics in its broadest sense to be about power relations and the distribution of resources then all sport is naturally political.                  

Do you believe that the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the 2018 World Cup in Russia are in any way similar?

From: Loyalwolf | St Gregory's Primary School

That is a really interesting observation. When the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made the comparison between the 1936 Olympics and the 2018 World Cup back in March it caused great controversy. But looked at from a purely historical stance, the similarities are fairly clear and not particularly surprising.

In 1936, the Nazi regime recognised the potential of the Olympics for propaganda purposes. It stage-managed the event to present the regime in a positive light to visiting athletes and journalists. To a certain extent this was successful. But not everyone was convinced. The United States, France and other countries seriously considered boycotting the Olympics. When the Games took place, its star was not a blond-haired German as Hitler had hoped but a black American sprinter, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals.

In many respects, 1936 was not unusual. Other Olympic Games and World Cups have been used for political purposes. Occasions of this type offer the opportunity for regimes to celebrate their culture and glory in their achievements. This is equally true of democracies as it is of dictatorships.

And while I would agree that making political capital out of a sporting event is equally important for Vladimir Putin in 2018 as it was for Hitler in 1936, there are clearly many other differences. As historians know, context is crucial and the world is very different now to how it was in the 1930s.  

"Banning the national anthem would deny supporters and players of small nations a brief moment of national solidarity and international recognition, celebrating their existence to themselves and to others in a competitive but safe context."

Professor Matt Taylor, De Montfort University

Do you agree that the football competition is dangerous if held in Russia?

From: TigerTeam | Elaine Primary Academy

You are right that there are certain dangers associated with a World Cup held in Russia.

There has been particular concern for supporters visiting Russia. The main reason for this is Russia’s poor record in dealing with hooliganism. Many Russian clubs have organised groups of violent supporters similar to those which were common in England during the 1970s and 1980s. At Euro 2016, Russian hooligans attacked England fans when the two teams played either other in Marseille.

The actions of the Russian hooligans were applauded by some of the country’s politicians. Igor Lebedev, a nationalist MP, tweeted: ‘I don’t see anything terrible about fans fighting. Quite the opposite, the guys did well. Keep it up!’      

Added to this, there is particular concern over the treatment of gay people and minorities at the World Cup. Russian supporters have been found guilty of racist chanting towards black players in the past and in January this year Spartak Moscow was fined by its own federation for referring to its black players as ‘chocolates’. Although homosexuality is legal in Russia, prejudice against people who are openly gay is common. In 2013 a law banning the promotion of homosexuality was passed in Russia. Some campaigners have warned gay people to be careful about holding hands in public.   

Having said this, there is hope that Russia’s ambition to stage a successful World Cup might lead its government to clamp down on hooligans, racists and homophobes. The Russian authorities have given assurances that visiting fans will be safe from violence and Russian anti-discrimination spokesmen have suggested that gay and ethnic minority fans will not be targeted.  

It remains to be seen whether this will be possible, particularly in view of the increasing tensions between the UK and Russia which followed the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018.

Why don’t they ban the national anthem because that is religious?

From: catcircle787 | Boutcher Primary School

It is true that we often think of national songs and symbols negatively. Football supporters have in the past booed national anthems. Equally, athletes are sometimes criticised by the media for not singing the anthem at all, or not singing with sufficient enthusiasm.

However, I think it’s wrong to look at the national anthem in a sporting setting only as source of conflict and division. For small nations, tournaments such as the football World Cup offer a rare opportunity to display a sense of national identity and pride to an international audience of millions. International sporting competition is crucial for nations of this type.  For newly independent states, becoming members of FIFA (football’s governing body) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been seen to be at least as important as being accepted into the United Nations.

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm once wrote that ‘the identity of a nation of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people’. This seems particularly true of nations such as Costa Rica, Panama and Senegal, who will probably be recognised more for their involvement in this World Cup than for anything else over the next few years.    

Banning the national anthem would deny supporters and players of small nations a brief moment of national solidarity and international recognition, celebrating their existence to themselves and to others in a competitive but safe context.    

Should Russia have been allowed to host the World Cup in the first place considering their involvement in the invasion of Crimea and their support of Syria’s president Assad?

From: Pip:Wip | Graveney School

That’s a very important question. Many people have certainly argued along these lines.

As far back as 2010, when Russia and Qatar were awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, there was criticism that FIFA (football’s world governing body) had focused on commercial considerations and ignored important issues such as human rights. These concerns have only increased in light of Russia’s support for the Syrian government since 2011 and the invasion of Crimea in 2014. The United States and the EU placed sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Leading politicians in both countries called for the World Cup to be switched to a nation that respected international law.

However, it was never likely that FIFA would have considered taking the competition away from Russia. There are a number of reasons for this. FIFA has long valued its independence from the influence of governments. It has been particularly resistant to pressure from powerful western governments, maintaining that its control of world football should be in the interest of all nations and that it should bring the World Cup to all parts of the world.     

Another reason is that FIFA has tended not to move World Cups once they have been awarded. The only case where the venue was changed was in 1986. On this occasion Colombia, the original hosts, decided it couldn’t afford to stage the World Cup and the competition was relocated to Mexico.

Historically, FIFA has been more concerned with the stability of the political regimes in host nations than the views of politicians or public opinion. The second World Cup in 1934 took place in Mussolini’s Italy and in 1978 a military dictatorship in Argentina hosted the event despite considerable condemnation from left-wing organisations and human rights activists in Europe.         

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