Should sports be protected from international politics?
Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.” Recent events in international soccer suggest that politics may actually be a continuation of sports.
Fans in Egypt and Algeria took to the streets following a qualifying match and subsequent playoff match that sent Algeria to the World Cup. Reports of attacks on Egyptian businesses and homes in Algiers and a stone attack on the Algerian team bus led Egypt to recall its ambassador from Algeria and Arab League chief Amr Musa to ask Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to step in to mediate.
Meanwhile, a blatant handball that led to a game-winning goal by France’s Thierry Henry shut Ireland out of the World Cup for the second time in a row and led to discussions in the Irish parliament, a letter from the Irish Minister for Sport to the FIFA President asking for a rematch and a diplomatic exchange between the Irish Prime Minister and French President at the big EU summit in November.
Clearly for fans, international sports matter a lot. They can also have a meaningful impact on national identity and national pride. But should government officials weigh in on debates or controversies in international sports? Or need politicians observe a separation of sport and state?
I’ve discussed a related issue regarding the President lobbying to host the Olympic games. But I want to briefly explore this question from a different perspective: is there something sacred about sports and, perhaps, other arts and culture-related competition (the Oscars, Cannes, Nobel Prizes) that they should be insulated from international power politics?
It’s hard to find an explicit principle against such interference. Politicians are supposed to advance the national interest and excellence in international competitions does just this by promoting national unity, building a positive picture of the country and forming a positive national identity. Thus, politicians should be largely free to advocate for their national teams as they please.
But intuitively this doesn’t seem totally right. We may root for our own team first, but then, we tend to root for the underdogs. We love the story of tiny, tropical Jamaica competing in the Olympic bobsled. We can’t help but smile watching the Iraqi football team place 4th in the 2004 Olympics. We find ourselves inspired by the Olympics and other major sporting events because (true or false) they appear to be perfectly meritocratic – the outcome ruled not by wealth or skin color or military might, but by how hard the individual athletes work. And something about this, it seems, would be spoiled by the interference of national leaders dragging sports into the realm of power politics.
Photo by Flickr user eamoncurry123 used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.