29 July 2016

Doping and Imperialism: The Modern Relationship between Sport and War

Daniel Gallan

With less than a week to go to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, the integrity of sport and competition hangs by a thread. Every day, new information surrounding the developing Russian doping scandal emerges. President Vladimir Putin has remained steadfast in defence of his athletes and government while the whole debacle is getting uglier and more political as it progresses. In light of this, CONQA Sport takes a look at the relationship between sport and politics, and more specifically, war. For make no mistake, this is a 21st century imperial march on sport, and indeed, the world.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin stands during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Putin's government views sport as not only a tool to help build nationallism, but as a weapon to dominate on the world stage.  Image supplied by CONQA Sport / Phil Noble. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin stands during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Putin's government views sport as not only a tool to help build nationallism, but as a weapon to dominate on the world stage. Image supplied by CONQA Sport / Phil Noble. 

It has all the ingredients of a classic James Bond film: government sanctioned infiltration tactics, conspiratorial cover-ups, ideological disputes between Russia and the West. Truthfully, producers would have thrown the script out for it being too obvious.

The recently published McLaren Report has revealed that Russian athletes, with the support of their government, had used performance enhancing drugs to ensure a favourable medal count for the host nation at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. According to the report, “All state resources were used, including the FSB (the Federal Security Service) to assist in the execution of the plan.”

These methods of assistance ran the gamut from the unapologetically blatant – an FSB building was situated right next to the anti-doping laboratory at Sochi – to the ludicrous – dirty urine samples were passed through a small mouse hole drilled between the aliquoting room in the secure area of the laboratory and the adjacent “operations” room. It would be hysterical if the ramifications weren’t so severe.

In the wake of these findings, and in conjunction with further allegations of state sponsored doping during the London 2012 Summer Games and beyond, Russian track and field athletes have been banned by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) from competing in Rio later this month.

Despite calls from WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and others to implement an outright ban on the entire Russian Olympic team, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) instead kicked the can to the individual sports federations. Some Russian athletes will compete in Rio, but the storm clouds they bring with them will not dissipate any time soon.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has labelled this fiasco as a “dangerous relapse of politics intruding into sports” and warned of a developing “schism” between his nation and the West. He has said that the banned athletes are the victims of “double standards” and “discrimination”, and views this ban as a “dangerous relapse into the interference of politics in sport.”

It would be easy to dismiss these sentiments as the hyperbolic rantings from a paranoid leader of a nation insecure with its current standing on the world stage. After all, it was Putin’s government that so blatantly crossed the Rubicon in the first place.  That may be true, but it would be remiss to assume that the slap on the wrist Russia has received is not at least somewhat political.

Putin is a great admirer of sport and a firm believer that athletic prowess is a crucial component to achieving greatness as a nation. He is a black belt in judo and can often be seen showing off his physical capabilities, be it swimming butterfly in an open lake or scoring seven goals in an exhibition ice hockey game. Few other world leaders can match the 63 year old in this regard.

For Putin, and by extension, his government, sport is an expression of dominance. As Luke Harding and Alec Luhn wrote for the Guardian, “For Putin, sport is more than a pastime. It serves an ideological power. It’s an essential part of his maximal vision of Russia as a revived Great Power.”

It’s not just the Russian government that feels this way; sentiments towards the ruling party are swayed by athletic success or failure on the world stage. After Russia’s poor showing at the European Championship in France earlier this year, the Communist Party of Russia said on its official account that the team was as “soft” as Putin’s United Russia party and that the nation needed a “Stalinist mobilisation.”

Internally, the perception is that Russian athletes must succeed for the collective to be taken seriously. The McLaren Report echoes this sentiment when it states: “The real catalyst to develop the Sochi scheme was the abysmal performance of the Russian delegation at the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010.” Putin’s government would do everything it could to avoid another embarrassment.

If we were speaking about state sponsored doping in relation to Norway and Prime Minister Erna Solberg, or Cameroon and President Paul Biya, the narrative would have a different tone. As it is, we are reminded of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the boycotts of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, and the mistrust and antagonism that continues to separate the world along political lines.

If history is simply a series of falling dominoes, it does not take a cognitive quantum leap to then start thinking about the Nazi propaganda circus that was Berlin 1936, nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, conflict between great nations and war. Make no mistake; Russia’s state sponsored doping is a 21st century imperial march.

The metaphor between sport and war is as old as sport itself. Perhaps it’s even as old as war. Like race, religion and politics (the three great catalysts for war), no other force on earth has the ability to simultaneously galvanise a mass of people like sport.

Sport in general, and the Modern Olympics in particular, was meant to serve as a replacement for war. It was not meant to be an ideological 180-degree turn. Sport was meant to slake our carnal desires with the only casualty being national and civic pride. This obviously proved to be idealistic.

Instead, sport has become a derivative of war. Passion, loyalty, patriotism, self-sacrifice; these are the shared virtues that are held in such high esteem in both endeavours. However, one needs to bear in mind that the comparisons can come across as vulgar, and athletes who make the comparison themselves often draw the ire of soldiers and civilians.

In 2003, American footballer Kellen Winslow Jnr called himself a “soldier” and stated that college football was akin to “war”. He was labelled ignorant at best and overtly offensive at worst. Sure, this was an ill-thought out tirade by a young man, but he was not the first, nor has he been the last to make the comparison. In fact, soldiers themselves have been linking sport and war for over 100 years.

In one of the most iconic images from the Great War, German and British soldiers take a break from killing each other to play an informal game of football between the lines in no-man's land. This image stands out as a testament to the human spirit, and that even in the most atrocious conditions, our love of sport endures. 

In one of the most iconic images from the Great War, German and British soldiers take a break from killing each other to play an informal game of football between the lines in no-man's land. This image stands out as a testament to the human spirit, and that even in the most atrocious conditions, our love of sport endures. 

In World War I, the war that was supposed to put a bullet in the notion that war was simply good sport, British commander, General Sir Charles Harington compared the Allied forces to a football team. He likened the home front to a “sound fullback”, British army officers to “grand attacking forwards”, and commanders in distant theatres in Russia and Egypt as “winged three quarter-backs who helped so much to increase the score.”

The truth is these comparisons are purely abstract. The consequences of sport and war could not be further apart and as such, real world associations fall flat. What we are doing when comparing the two is highlighting the psychological link that exists.

John Smith (*not his real name) is a clinical psychologist with experience in both sport and war. He has played a pivotal role as a psychologist for the US Navy SEALs and has consulted for elite sports teams and athletes around the world. He has seen the true horror of war and has treated soldiers who have survived harrowing experiences. As a result, he cautions against making the comparison.

“We have to be very careful because in war, lives are on the line,” he says. “But the jargon that has become so ingrained in sport does not take this into account. I often advise athletes and coaches to avoid using these words as it is easy to cross the line and become inappropriate.”

We speak of “blitzing” the opposition and “outflanking” them. Our beloved captains and managers are “generals” and their players are “troops” who fight on the “frontlines” and in the “trenches”. Any athlete who joins a rival team is a “turncoat” and “traitor”.

The words we use shape our perception of the world around us and as long as commentators and fans (from the word ‘fanatic’) use these words, the comparison will persevere. However, this only partly explains the persisting association.

As Smith says, “It is the ‘us-versus-them’ concept that really stirs up the same emotions found in both sport and war. They both are relatively binary; you either win or you lose. That is a piece of the competitive spirit that is inherent in all human beings. The media plays on this narrative and it all adds to the spectacle”.

Like the triumphs of returning conquerors in ancient Rome, we hail title winning athletes with ticker tape parades through our cities. Before major tournaments, we wave our heroes off with the same gusto and admiration that has seen troops march to war for thousands of years.

George Orwell said that, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.”

By understanding the ways in which sport and war are related, we can make sense of Russia’s state sponsored doping, and by extension, all other political interference in sport. The games we play are more than just pastimes and the athletes who represent their nations on the world stage are more than just competitors.

What Russia did was cheating and went against everything that sport should stand for, but is it entirely beyond justification? The Russian athletes and authorities knew full well the consequences of what would happen if they were caught and yet they carried out their actions anyway. In that sense, sport and war are further linked by the steadfast belief that those who bend the rules are doing so with the assumption that the ends justify the means.

The Russian Olympic Committee, the government officials involved and the athletes themselves deserve the criticism and exclusion that they now face. No one in their right mind, not even Putin, could be entirely 100% honest and argue for this to be swept under the rug and for all to be forgiven. But that does not mean we can’t seek to understand why this has happened.

Sure, this was about gold and athletic glory, but more importantly, this was about national pride. Truthfully, this won’t be the last time we face a situation like this. As long as our collective psyche paints sport with a warlike brush, political interference for the sake of national pride will persist.

*Given the sensitive nature of his work involving real combatants, as well as his position in the US Navy SEALs, we are not at liberty to reveal the true identity of our source.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.