The world of international sport is possibly the least contentious form of multinational cooperation possible. While bodies like the United Nations and climate treaties can sometimes produce accusations of violating sovereignty and hand-tying, sports tend to receive a better wrap as they are a part of every culture’s identity.
According to the United Nations, the Olympic Charter specifies that “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” This is the common view of international sporting — as a medium of solidarity. Where you come from does not matter; you represent your sport. The idea is that this friendly spirit of competition can be a model for a future world based on that same fraternal partnership.
This is only an illusion, however. Rather than fostering international cooperation, national interests get brought to the forefront. Beyond this, the specter of politics always bleeds into the proceedings, creating a very disunited international unity.
Starting with the Olympics, there are plenty of examples of the games being mired in politics. Perhaps no instance is more infamous than the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Berlin. The ceremony was intended to be a showcase of the new Germany and their believed superiority of Aryan athletes. Rather than fostering solidarity, the games were used as a nationalistic vehicle to separate Germany from other nations of the world.
Another example of politics intruding was during the 1972 Munich Olympics, where the Palestinian resistance group Black September took the Israeli team hostage in a long standoff to try to secure the release of more than 200 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli detention. The plan failed, and 11 athletes were killed along with the Black September militants. It is hard to imagine something more political occurring. This was the Palestinian conflict with the State of Israel spilling into international sports in the most direct fashion.
Besides these, there are countless other examples. In 1956, Egypt boycotted the Olympics due to British and French invasions after the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Starting in 1964, South Africa was banned from the games for two decades for not condemning segregation in sports. In 1968, African American athletes protested at the games for the mistreatment of their community following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1980, many nations boycotted the Moscow games for the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. The Warsaw Pact nations followed suit in 1984 for the Los Angeles games. What we see here is actually sports being used as a political venue to prop up various national or international blocs in contrast to the disappearance of division that is advertised. While the Olympics are the most visible example of this, the World Cup is no exception.
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been mired in controversy due to the selection for hosting. The nation’s human rights record towards women and LGBTQ+ individuals is poor and the nation has long been accused of abusing migrant laborers.
Then, during the events, came controversy over Iran. The U.S. team chose to display the Persian flag of Iran instead of the Islamic Republic flag to show solidarity with the ongoing protests in the country over treatment of women by the government. This resulted in the Iranian government calling for the U.S. to be banned from the 2022 World Cup.
International sports often become an opportunity to signal virtue over other states. When the event is held in an “adversarial” nation, politics are raised. This even extends to individual matchups between rival nations, as has happened in this World Cup. Language around the game took on the tone of a battle between a democratic government and a repressive one. The soccer pitch might as well have been a stand in for the Persian Gulf and the American team representing the fleet offshore. It reminded me of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” when the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets. Once again, victories over political adversaries were used to bolster nationalism and push forward nationalist narratives.
While I do not have a solution to the division sparked by international sport, I think the hypocrisy of using nationalism in the guise of international solidarity can have harmful repercussions — increased chauvinism, furthering of international conflict and the cementing of Western-centric narratives — at the cost of much of the world that is impacted and hurt by those narratives of Western supremacy.