Sport is theatre. Depending on the discipline, the performers on stage are in the limelight either week after week or every four years at the Olympic Games or World Cup. And the public is usually enchanted, rejoices with the successful, regrets or ridicules the losers. A harmless spectacle, at least as long as the health of those involved is not visibly affected too much. And if Marxists used to say that religion was the opium of the people, today this role could be attributed to competitive sport.
Sport was and is always politics. Even the gentlemen who invented the supposedly noble amateur sport in Great Britain ended up understanding their physical activity in exactly the same way. Because you wanted and should always keep to yourself when it comes to sports. So the upper class played cricket, tennis or, in the private schools, rugby. Rowing was also befitting. “Cheap” amusements like the fighting game of soccer were for the lower classes, not least the working class. And because they couldn’t afford to indulge in casual leisure activities, unlike the upper classes, football was the first sport to become more professional than today’s “big” sports. There has been a professional league in England since 1888, with Scotland following shortly afterwards.
Ultimately “national battles”
The geographic focus of the English league for several decades was clearly the Midlands and the North. At the time, these regions represented industrial modernity, they prospered. The first London club, Arsenal, only appeared in the first division at the beginning of the 20th century. Professional sport is also a good indicator of a country’s economic history.
The division of sport into the “sovereign” and “proletarian” departments, which reflects society, lasted for decades in many countries. And although the world, including that of sport, was changing at an ever faster pace, officials in particular maintained the old illusions of purposeless, noble physical activity: “For the glory of sport”, as it says in the so-called Olympic oath, the oath of a Athlete at the beginning of the Games until today. However, the famous oath of which the International Olympic Committee is so proud has not completely lost touch with reality. Until 1964, the phrase “to the honor of our fatherland” preceded the “Glory of Sport”. But because that seemed a little too martial to some, especially after the bloody experiences of the 20th century, today we fight, win and lose “to the honor of our teams”. Since these teams compete under national flags and the respective national anthem is played at award ceremonies, the major world sporting events are ultimately “national competitions”.
Sports associations like to bask in the glow of politicians
Nevertheless, it is repeatedly demanded that events such as the Olympic Games or the football world championships should not be “politicized” in general. Interestingly enough, this demand usually comes loudest from those who do just that. On the other hand, there was hardly any objection when athletes from South Africa were excluded from major international sporting events for many years because of their government’s apartheid policy. This was undoubtedly just as much a “politicization” of sport as the mutual boycotts of East and West Olympics in 1980 and 1984.
The major sports associations, which have been dominated to this day by older men, like to bask in the glamor of politicians of all kinds. However, their argument against an alleged “politicization” is essentially driven by economic interests today. Country and system competitions develop an irresistible fascination for a global audience. And since sport has been expelled from the “paradise” of amateur existence since the “fall of man” of the professional football league in England in 1888 at the latest, it is no longer just governments that interfere with the affairs of athletes, but also large companies. They often have their own interests, also in relation to politics, which sport then has to satisfy somehow.