4 December 2015


Every week there seems to be another example of sport and politics mixing in an unsavoury fashion. Whether it is one more FIFA delegate being implicated in a corruption scandal or a star athlete accused of doping, it would appear to be a given that sports articles feature on both the back and front pages of newspapers. But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. CONQA Sport explores the often tumultuous relationship between sport and politics and discovers that if history is anything to go by, these two key representations of the human identity will forever be linked. 

Suspended president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, looks dejected as he faces journalists at a news conference in September 2014. The disgraced Swiss is facing a life ban from football after a series of corruption allegations, most notably, money laundering related to the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 FIFA soccer World Cups in Russia and Qatar.  Image supplied by Action Images  /  Arnd Wiegmann.

Suspended president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, looks dejected as he faces journalists at a news conference in September 2014. The disgraced Swiss is facing a life ban from football after a series of corruption allegations, most notably, money laundering related to the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 FIFA soccer World Cups in Russia and Qatar. Image supplied by Action Images / Arnd Wiegmann.

With Bayern Munich and Barcelona hogging headlines and the small matter of the upcoming Ballon d’Or, you may have missed one of the most remarkable events to happen in football’s history: last week in Mauritania, FC Tevragh-Zeina and ACS Ksar competed for the North African nation’s domestic Super Cup. The game was stagnating, with the score locked at 1-1 after 63 minutes.

Mauritania’s President, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, attended and became disinterested in proceedings on the pitch. He ordered the remaining minutes to be jettisoned as a result of his boredom and spot kicks were hastily arranged for a swift conclusion. Tevragh-Zeina went on to win the match and lift the trophy.

The Mauritania FA denied any political meddling, stating that the decision was made due to “organisational issues in accordance with the presidents and the coaches of the two teams.”

However you interpret events, this football match will go down as yet another example of politics polluting the integrity of sport.

According to Jarrod Kimber, writer for ESPN’s Cricinfo and co-producer and director of the documentary, Death of a Gentleman (2015), “it is impossible to disentangle sports and politics.”

In 2011, Kimber and fellow journalist, Sam Collins, set out to make a documentary about the state of Test cricket but ended up making a film about who controls the sport. Death of a Gentleman is one of the most important sports documentaries in recent times as it shines a damning light on the governing bodies of cricket’s most powerful boards. It speaks of greed, corruption and a reluctance to develop the game beyond the powerful grip of the “Big Three” - India, England and Australia.

The documentary opens up a broader conversation about the tumultuous relationship between sport and politics. As Kimber says, “we came in with a specific question in mind, but once we started asking more questions, we realised there were more important issues to explore.”

The documentary reveals that the decisions made in air-conditioned boardrooms have serious consequences on the development of the sport globally.

When India reduced their 2013 tour of South Africa to an abridged farce as a result of political squabbling, Cricket South Africa lost a vast sum of money. The resources from TV rights and ticket sales could have been pumped into development cricket to unearth a young batsman or bowler from a rural community. Either way, it is important to note that the decisions of a few individuals at the very top can greatly impact the future of a sport.

This extends beyond governing bodies to politicians and governments at large. As seen with Russia’s recent exile from world athletics as a result of state-sponsored doping (a throwback to the old Soviet Union’s alleged strategies), politicians are happy to step in and ensure athletes bring glory to their nation.

Throughout history, political regimes have attached their ideologies to the backs of their athletes as it is on those backs that the hopes of nations are carried. Nazi Germany imposed their concept of an Übermensch (a superior race) at the 1936 Berlin Games just as Victorian England colonised much of the world by conditioning young men on private school fields. In both cases, sport was used as a way of proving cultural and physiological supremacy.

Echoing Nazi and colonial dogma, South Africa’s apartheid government used sport as a way of subjugating the already oppressed black and coloured population. To this day, many people still associate the Springbok emblem with an oppressive regime.

A nation’s identity is often inexorably linked to the games they play. To argue this, Kimber asks people if they can name a famous Sri Lankan who doesn’t play cricket. “Most of us know about the country because of the sport,” he says. Through cricket, this tiny island nation is able to compete on a global stage against former colonial powers and modern industrial giants. The same applies to New Zealand and South Africa, whose patriotism and identity would be so different without rugby.

At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, John Carlos (right), Tommie Smith (centre) and Peter Norman, who wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support of their gesture. 

At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, John Carlos (right), Tommie Smith (centre) and Peter Norman, who wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support of their gesture. 

Four days before South Africa’s semi-final clash with England in the 1992 Cricket World Cup, the president at the time, FW de Klerk, called for a referendum. After 44 years, white South Africans could vote to end apartheid. Former President of the South African Cricket Union, Geoff Dakin, told journalists, “If it is No, it will be impossible for us to continue in the tournament.” The vote passed with an overwhelming majority, but conspiracy theorists have suggested that a large proportion of the 68.7% in favour of political transformation were more concerned about the Proteas than politics.

Sport has always provided a platform for political statements. In one of the most iconic images in world history, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, in a moving act of solidarity, raised their fists from a podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (at the height of the civil rights movement in the USA) in support of Black Power and Consciousness. The two American athletes were admonished by the US Olympic Committee as well as their government for bringing politics into sports. Ironically, it was the US that boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow as a result of political differences with the Soviet Union (a favour returned by the majority of communist countries four years later at the Los Angeles Games).

Kimber argues that it is not politics intruding on sport that we hate so much, but bad politics getting in the way of good sport. “People don’t like politics, they don’t understand it and it’s a messy game,” he says. “What people mean when they say they don’t want politics in sport is that they don’t want bad politics. We all want interference to come out of sport.”

On the surface, Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World has nothing in common with the murder of nine Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. However, both of these acts were political statements carried out with an eye on a much bigger picture. With differing motives, both Mandela and the terrorists responsible for the attacks used sport as a stage to advocate a political ideal.

Speaking ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, FIFA’s secretary-general, Jerome Valcke, said, “less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup.” While this is not as controversial as Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone confessing he admired how successful Adolf Hitler was at “getting things done”, it does strengthen the message that sports governing bodies, in many ways, mirror totalitarian regimes. Powerful individuals like Sepp Blatter and Narayanaswami Srinivasan resemble dictators who cling to power rather than egalitarian leaders driving progress and unity.

This could explain why so many countries with poor human rights records are increasingly being granted the privilege to stage major sporting events. Nations like Russia, China, Qatar and Azerbaijan are more than happy to play host to the world while subjugating their own people. Though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has now passed reforms to entice more democracies to bid for the Games, and for the first time, human rights protections will be included in host city contracts, it seems oppressive regimes are leading the race to play host to the world.

“Sport should be, at its very best, the complete opposite of politics,” says Kimber. “It’s pure and it’s beautiful and it’s an escape from politics and war and the grind of our daily lives.” While he champions the beautiful moments where sport and politics collide, he, like so many others, yearns for a world where governing bodies like the ICC or FIFA are not tainted by allegations of bribery and corruption. Like any fan of sport, Kimber doesn’t want to have to worry about steroid use, match fixing, or question whether or not the government of a nation has been in bed with leading figures of a sports federation.

Kimber calls for “sport to be sport again,” out of reach of the tentacles of fat cats and politicians. As history has shown, this is an idealistic dream. In exalted exhibitions of humanity, as well as countless portrayals of wicked ideologies, sport and politics will forever remain interlocking companions that both reflect the varying philosophies of the human condition. 

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