The myth of separation of sports and politics
Countries have used sports for political ends for over a century. 19th-century Germany, for example, developed an educational system centered around gymnastics aimed at promoting feelings of national belonging which then inspired Swedish, Italian or Jewish nationalisms.
The eminently political character of sports is also expressed through sport diplomacy strategies, developed by states which consciously use sports as a soft power tool to improve their global reputation and relations with other states. For instance, the hosting of mega-sporting events (MES), central to the concept of sport diplomacy, is a good illustration of how the myth of separation of sports and politics was built around apolitical values promoted by some sports governing bodies. However, although apoliticism is a pillar to Olympism, the hosting of the Olympic Games in itself is political. The Barcelona Games in 1992 for example contributed to the depiction of post-Francoist Spain as a modern and democratic country to the rest of the world.
Sports historians have often studied interactions between ideology and sport using dictatorships or recently democratic states as case studies, such as post-Francoist Spain, post-apartheid South Africa, Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. These cases demonstrate how political regimes, through the hosting of MES or the development of high-performance sport, have used sports to render a positive image of their regime’s ideologies, both on the national and international level. It should be noted that such strategies are also adopted by other types of regime.
French football for Republican France
France nurtures a particularly interesting relationship with its men’s national football team. Media and political discourses around the team, called Les Bleus, reveal both France’s diversity and the xenophobic feelings it causes, according to French historian Pascal Blanchard. Particularly since the 1980s, the societal, cultural and political symbolisms that have been assigned to Les Bleus’ football defeats and victories are yet another example of the strong links between sports and politics.
The hosting of the 1998 men’s football World Cup in France paired with the triumph of Les Bleus gave birth to the myth of the “Black-Blanc-Beur” [Black, White, Arab] France, the symbol of an alleged efficient integration system in the French collective imaginary. Integration – or “assimilation” – is central to the French republican ideology, built on Jacobin and universalist principles and aspiring to promote a national ideal in which the French identity is absolutely paramount. French citizens are supposed, based on the ideology of the state which still controls history, geography and civic education textbooks in the so-called “republican” schools, to prioritize their belonging to the French nation over all other forms of plural identities, whether they are religious, ethnic or national.
Therefore, two decades after the 1998 victory of Les Bleus and despite the fading of the team as an efficient symbol of a multicultural France, football continues to be used as a politicized tool to promote the republican identity. In 2020, Oliver Faure, a French politician for the Socialist Party, inscribed himself into such tradition of mixing sports and politics when he declared that he only saw “tricolore” [the three colors of the French flag] when French players scored goals, suggesting he doesn’t see race, in a response to a tweet by French football player Kylian Mbappé denouncing police brutality. Although police brutality, in France and the United States, is often linked with systemic racism by numerous sociological studies, Faure saw this as an opportunity to use football to promote the universalist ideology of the French Republic which traditionally rejects the sociological concept of “race”.
Another relevant example took place in 2018 after the second World Cup victory of Les Bleus in Russia, when the French ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud, in a response to the South African comedian Trevor Noah’s controversial “African won the World Cup” comments, reaffirmed that France did not refer to its citizens based on race, religion or origin. The myth of an indivisible and colorblind France, perpetuated through discourses built around football, is therefore paired with the myth of the separation of sports and politics.
The sports ecosystem is very broad, and its political dimension cannot be studied solely through a state-centric approach. It is essential to apprehend sports and its political stakes through the variety of actors involved: states, organizations – whether they are concerned with sports or not, governmental or non-governmental – at the regional and international level, as well as supporters, brands, and athletes.
Towards a new distribution of political power in sports?
The political sphere has been particularly engaged with the cultural and economic stakes presented by sports since the 1990s, during which globalized sports has experienced an exponential growth. Relations, often institutionalized, between sports and politics have been used as objects of study of a broad range of social sciences research which has led sociologists and historians to reject the supposed separation of these two fields.
However, this separation is often quoted by some sports governing bodies, the media and politicians when justifying activism bans for athletes during sports competitions. Whereas the organization of the Olympic Games is political in itself, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) limits its athletes’ freedom of expression through its Olympic Chart’s Rule 50 by citing the neutrality of its sports movement.
As explained by the historian Heather L. Ditcher, the IOC and other international sports organizations like to consider themselves above the political sphere. Yet, they stage events that serve as demonstrations of soft power by host states. It seems obvious that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is conscious of the geopolitical dynamics of its decisions when it nominates Qatar or Russia as host countries for its competitions.
Going further than the contradictions between social sciences and sports governing bodies’ discourses, the surge of political statements made by athletes and their apparent desire to wage the power of sports to contribute to social change urges further questioning of the myth of the separation of sports and politics.
It should be noted that the recent surge of athlete activism has led to important changes over the past few years. In 2016, the American quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling down during the national anthem performance before his games to denounce racial and social injustice in the United States. While his activism led to the early ending of his sports career, he started a social movement which spread across the sports world, with numerous players in North America and Europe kneeling down in 2020 and 2021 without automatically receiving sanctions. Despite the normalization of such forms of sports activism, it is still necessary to question and denounce the reluctance of some sports entities which still refuse that athletes wage the socio-political power of sports when the same entities recurrently wage it themselves.
It is therefore particularly important today to deconstruct the myth of the separation of sports and politics in order to allow actors which have often been relegated to the role of mere observers – such as athletes – to use the political power inherently held in the sports movement. It would be, after all, only fair play.
Written by Estelle Brun
Estelle Brun is a research associate at the IRIS (The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs).