The fabric that is a national identity is composed of shared experiences, stories and concepts that are dispersed among a particular group of people. Historically these have often centered around war, religion and ethnicity. Yet there has recently risen a new form of nationalism, where people define themselves not by victories on the battlefield but by victories on the football field and rugby pitch, where they find a sense of unity not just in religious hymns but the rallying chants that accompany any widely attended sporting event. Have the impacts of sport’s centrality to national identity been positive or negative?
Sport has become integrated into narratives of national unity for several reasons. One is that it provides nationalities with the ability to gain international prestige and prove themselves relative to other countries. This is largely due to the inherently zero-sum, competitive nature of most sports in which one group explicitly dominates and defeats the other. The need to demonstrate the superiority of one’s nations results in incredibly high emotional stakes involved within such events, in which the difference between victory and defeat is the difference between elation and humiliation. This directs individuals’ emotionally charged states towards other nationalities, encouraging hostility. The 2016 riots at the Euros involving English and Russian fans, and the so-called ‘Soccer War’ between El Salvador and Honduras are examples of tensions that have developed as a result of sport. Sport can also justify aggression on an international level by playing into narratives about the superiority of a particular nationality- note Hitler’s use of the 1936 Olympics to boost support for his expansionist foreign agenda.
Secondly, sport has been heavily subsidized and promoted as a national unifier by governments around the world. One issue with this is a ‘race to the bottom’ in which countries often neglect other more pressing internal problems in order to pursue the prestige and popularity that sport promises governments vying for re-election (note the boost in the popularity of the ruling party of Australia following the 2000 Sydney Olympics). Billions of dollars spent on extravagant white-elephant sport projects (such as publicly funded stadiums in the US), and the vast debt incurred by hosting the Olympics has crippled the budgets of Athens, Rio and Montreal, which took 30 years to pay for the 1976 games. More worryingly, the wild patriotism generated by sport have often allowed abusive governments to distract and enthrall their citizens, such as Russia’s aggressive subsidization of support and its close links to Putin’s strongman image. This also occurs on an international level- criticism of China’s human rights abuses was largely diminished during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Arguably, the presence of sport results in an exclusionary national identity. The primacy of physical performance immediately excludes women from the spotlight, although there are a few exceptions. Furthermore, historically there has been asymmetric access to and interest in support which has reinforced harmful societal norms, for both cultural and socio-economic reasons (such as the fact that the upper classes can more easily overcome financial accessibility issues and have historically had more leisure time). For example, whilst African Americans tend to dominate basketball, remarkably few in American football are trusted with playing in quarterback, a prestigious, well-paid position which comes with trust and responsibility. Historically the few who have reached the position have faced discrimination not only from other players but also the media and the rest of society as a whole.
There are a number of harms that result from the above-mentioned factors. First, individuals and groups, particularly women and minorities, may feel as if they are not a part (or a crucial part) of the national fabric because they are not represented on the national level. Second, insofar as role models have a greater motivating effect on individuals when the latter can relate to the former, the exclusion of certain demographics results in a lack of role models for those groups. Thirdly, sexist ideas are unlikely to be challenged in what many call the ‘Old Boys Club’ of wealthy players, coaches and investors that pervade the elite levels of sport in which women are not represented. The result of this is that the culture of sport is controlled by an echo chamber which is unlikely to be responsive to societal trends. This combined with the huge respect allocated to sportsmen results in the potential platforming of harmful views, or the normalization of frankly terrible behavior. An example of this is Floyd Mayweather’s extensive history of domestic abuse, for which he has largely been excused due to his dominance in the ring.
On the other hand, sport has the potential to integrate certain minorities within the concept of a nation. The uniquely meritocratic nature of sport has allowed minorities to reach its highest levels, as opposed to other areas of society from which they are comparatively more exclusive. The largest example of this has been France’s victories in the 1998 and 2018 World Cup with a team dominated by players of African and Arab descent. Another was the ‘Dream Team’, the 1992 USA Olympic men’s team which was considered the greatest basketball lineup of all time, mainly made up of African Americans. Given that teams are closely linked to national pride, the representation of minorities in such crucial moments for a nation massively improves domestic perceptions of those minorities. Importantly, their position in the national spotlight provides these players with a platform, allowing them to articulate their grievances and concerns to a captive national audience, such as basketball player Magic Johnson’s successful effort to increase awareness for HIV/AIDs, a disease he was personally suffering from.
Sport’s ability to cross demographic and class lines has large benefits when it comes to unity within a nation. However, it is important to recognize that sport’s inherently exclusionary nature still significantly mitigates this. At the end of the day, when sport is the altar at which countries lay their national wreath, not only are tensions between nations increased, but states become increasingly unresponsive to the needs of their citizens and less accountable to domestic and international pressure.