The Myth of the ‘Myth of Autonomy’: How are Sports and Politics Intertwined?

Lincoln Allison had coined the term the ‘myth of autonomy’ in relation to sports and diplomacy. This term suggests that sports was somehow separate from society, that it transcended or had “nothing to do with” politics and social conflict. Throughout the course of time, sports and diplomacy have had an underrated and under-appreciated relation. Sports possesses unparalleled visibility and popularity along with mobilising potential. Yet, sports has never truly been viewed as a compelling vehicle for driving diplomacy. This article wishes to highlight some of the multiple moments in history that not only solidified nations but were also turning points for key issues, all over sports.

The socio-political and diplomatic nature of sports is in fact, one of the formative roles of the International Olympic Committee. The ‘Olympic Movement’ champions world politics through its social mission of Olympism which aims to bring about international cooperation through sports. Though international and transnational sporting engagements were not uncommon prior to the IOC’s founding in 1894, Pierre de Coubertin (the reviver of the Olympic Games in the modern era) imbued this resolutely non-governmental organization with the overtly diplomatic aim

of promoting a prominent sort of cultural ‘internationalism’.

Let’s look at one particular issue that still plagues sports: racism. Racism has been long found in European and American sports. Although the nature of racism in international sports might have changed, from blatantly disallowing certain racial groups to online targeting and bullying of players of colour, one cannot deny that it exists. As recently as the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) 2020 Championship final, the skill of the goalkeepers was overshadowed by the perceived failure of English players who missed their shots. Three players- Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka- all players of colour were subject to torrents of anti-black racist abuse. One would believe that such forms of segregationist methods would have dwindled over time.Unfortunately they have only been reified to become more nuanced and less blatant.

However, players have never let such events deter them from using sports solely as a measure to express themselves; an embodiment of letting their actions speak for themselves. In 1936, when the Olympics took place in Berlin in the throes of Nazi Germany, Hitler was using it as a symbol of resurgence. He wanted this event to showcase the success of Nazi Germany and further propogate his theory of hierachial race. Along with the government officials, Hitler had high expectations from the German athletes. They truly believed that only German athletes would dominate the games, after all they did possess higher levels of skill, dexterity and intelligence. Nazi propoganda was spewed continuously and ideas of Aryan race superiority and ethnic African’s inferiority were promoted throughtout the tournament. Much to their dismay, Jesse Owens, an athlete of colour, not only won four gold medals in track and field, long jump, sprints, and relay but also broke multiple world records in the process. 

Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and later war armaments minister recollected: “Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made him happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games”.

Jesse Owens’s victory was not just a snub to the Germans, it was also a ray of hope in the United States of America where segregationism still thrived. Jesse Owens, when attending school at Ohio State University, had to live off campus with other African-American athletes.  When he travelled with the team, Owens was restricted to eating at black-only restaurants and staying at black-only hotels. He was also a victim of lack of scholarships for black athletes. And in the face of everything, his victory was a symbol of hope. 

In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when civil rights for people of color were still being fought tooth and nail, two American track and field athletes used this moment to showcase their solidarity with their fellow African-Americans suffering in the US everyday. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won a gold and bronze respectively, used their medal wins as an opportunity to highlight the social issues roiling the United States at the time. Racial tensions were at a height and the Civil Rights Movement had given way to the Black Power Movement. 

The tournament was merely months after the assassination of Reverend Martin Lather King, Jr., and protesrs against the Vietnam War were also gaining momentum. In the few days before the Olympics, Carlos helped organise the Olympic Project for Human Rights. This was a group that aimed to showcase their Black Pride and social consciousness. This group believed that the Olympic Games would be an ideal stage to agitate for better treatment of Black athletes as well as Black individuals around the world. Their demands included, but not limited to, hiring more black coaches and rescinding Olympic invitations to Rhodesia and South Africa, countries which rampantly employed seperationist methods. The two players, along with the group, wanted to use their victories as a platform to protest for broader change. 

Moving a little ahead in time, to South Africa in the mid-1990s, where segregationist methods were still in practice. Apartheid in South Africa was a political system of racial segregation that existed for decades until it institutionally came to an end in the early 1990s under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was the first in which South Africa was allowed to host and compete.It had previously been banned from the international game due to apartheid. Rugby, which was quite often seen in South Africa, as a white man’s game became a unifier of a once fragmented nation. 

The victory of the South African rugby team was a symbol that this nation could progress together, regardless of the colour of one’s skin. It was a chance to not only show the world how far they’d come and also a chance for them to introspect and see how far they still have to go. It was quite a turning point in South African history when Nelson Mandela handed the winning trophy to a white South African captain, François Pienaar. At that time, the TIME reported that the sport could herald a future in which “rugby matches, thick-necked Afrikaans players stand at attention for the black liberation and nationalist hymn Nkosi Sikelel i Afrika (God Bless Africa).” By the time the 1995 World Cup was over, that vision was much closer to being a reality.

While some may think that these moments are fragments of our past, remnants of the previous century- this is not true. Even today, players of colour are subjected to racial abuse and even today they use their victories as a stage to voice their views on the political ongoings of the world. As recent as 2016, in an NFL exhibition game final, a quaterback named Colin Kaepernick used his position as an athlete to raise his voice against the social injustices faced by African-American communities in the United States. Instead of standing for the national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, he decided to take a knee. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick’s decision to sit for the anthem brought widespread attention to a game that would have been all but ignored. The NFL’s final exhibition games come after more than a month of practice, rarely feature any starters and are seen by coaches as exercises to get through unscathed before the start of the regular season. And yet, ideas, such as sports are indifferent to the political climate, exist? How can they possbly be more intertwined? 

As one can see, sportspersons have used their sports as a means to express their opinions on political and social issues, to extend solidarity to their brethren and to build a hope for a changing and evolving world. After all these expressions, no one can possibly suggest that sports and diplomacy do not intermingle. Like mentioned earlier, the obvious visibility, popularity and mobilising potential of sports is what makes sports inherently a diplomatic tool. Nothing brings people together like a game and nothing brings nations together like a game. 

Yasashvi Paarakh is a second-year Economics and Politics student at Ashoka University. Her research interests lie in studying the growing intersection between politics and the state.

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