The History of Sport Under Capitalism (Part II) - Sport in decadent capitalism (from 1914 to today)

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In the first article we saw that sport was a pure product of capitalism and that it had a real weight in the class struggle.  In this part we will see that in the period of the decadence of this capitalist system it is an instrument of the state which is used to repress and keep down the exploited.

State capitalism generates mass sport

At the time of World War I, sport already had a global dimension. In a few decades it became a real mass phenomenon.

From 1914, in a totalitarian fashion, the state took charge of the great sporting events in each nation while at the same time organising, under the flags of the time, the mobilisation for global conflict: "World sport as a whole has become a vast organisation and administrative structure, a national business taken in control by the states regarding their diplomatic interests"[1]. Thus the states constructed and financed massive structures: the sporting complexes, stadiums of 80 to 100 thousand places, the biggest of which reached 200,000 (Maracana in Brazil), gymnasiums, race tracks and circuits (as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway its 400,000 places), etc. Real giant parks, cathedrals of concrete and steel rising up, full of supporters or "fans", as at the Olympic Games, football World Cups, or automobile Grand Prix, etc., each time using military organisation and the logistics of a real army in order to produce the spectacle. Means of transport and communication under the control of the state are used to channel the crowds towards the new, modern temples. A specialised sporting press was developed on an industrial scale in the 20th century, covering even the most minor sporting events. Radio, then television, became the privileged tool of propaganda to popularise sporting practices, to better promote the spectacle/merchandise and betting games. One of the symptoms of this reality is also the bureaucratisation of widespread sporting institutions: "to the point that today one cannot at all talk of sport without talking about sporting organisations (federations, clubs, etc.)"[2].

The  change of towards mass sport from the 1920s thus operates in a context where state capitalism "has become this monstrous machine, cold and impersonal, which ends up devouring the very substance of civil society"[3]. Events are real commercial fairs of the state which each time is covered by a near-hysterical media. This explains the explosion of sporting players and spectators over the last 30 years. In France for example, there were only a million sporting licences in 1914. Forty years later these figures had doubled. They reached 14 million in 2000, seven times more than in the 1950s![4]. Today, some spectacles such as the Olympic Games can mobilise and hypnotise more than 4 billion television viewers in the world!

The capitalist states are the high priests of this new, universal religion of sport; a real 'opium of the people', a drug brought in over several decades with higher doses. In antiquity, the ruling class affirmed itself through religion and 'bread and circuses'. In the period of capitalism's decadence and mass unemployment, sport and its merchandise is itself a real religion aiming to console, distract and control pauperised working class families. More games and less bread, that's contemporary capitalist reality! For the populations and the working masses who still have the chance of a job, submitting to the timetables of the office or the factory, to the hell of exploitation and the depersonalisation of the large urban centres, the spectacle of sport or the practice of sport becomes, thanks to propaganda and marketing, 'indispensable leisure time'. Sport constitutes one of the privileged means to abandon oneself to the 'invisible forces of capital'. Thus sports, assimilated to 'free time', is only finally limited to a narrow simple means of subsistence and physiological conservation: "by degrading to the average the creative free activity of man, alienated work makes of his generic life an instrument of his physical existence"[5]. Lived as a sort of 'necessary de-stressing' for workers, sporting activity is only in reality a means of reconstituting the force of labour, as is sleep, food and drink! Moreover sport allows the workers to physically better resist the infernal timetables of the job. It thus allows one to face up to the conditions of exploitation, to 'forget' in the space of a moment the torments of capitalist society. The real paradox is that sport itself appears as hard work, timed by a clock, voluntary suffering closely linked to industrial rhythms and performance. For a growing number of adepts it's becoming a real addiction. Some workers even dedicate part of their holidays to collective sporting activity the content of which is close to army-type training. One again, sport expresses one of the realities of alienation by becoming, through its massive scope, almost indispensable and ends up generating a greater submission to capital. It's recognised that sport permits the growth of productivity and encourages the spirit of competition. From the daily grind  of working to schedules, repetitive labour where workers are tired right out there's a real enterprise of guilt-making which is further accompanied by a moral lecture on 'health' and the necessity to 'fight against obesity' through sport. One should be 'competitive', 'dynamic' and 'performing'. This lecture is perfectly in tune with the necessities of the competitiveness of industry, which sponsors sporting clubs while, at the same time, looking to sell their cheap slimming products or other merchandise glamorised through the image of sport. During the summer of 2012 for example, at the Olympic Games in London, the British capital was turned into a massive commercial fair, a real hypermarket drowning us with all sorts of products. Everywhere in the stadiums and other sports complexes, the remotest corners were lit up with placards and publicity screens. The sportsmen and women were the sponsored sandwiches covered with publicity slogans for the big names and posed to show them off in the best light to the photographers and TV cameras. This mercantile exhibition was an integral part of the preparation for the games, in the same way as physical exercises. Sport is a product at the service of the casino economy, with TV rights, derivative products, managers, clubs close to the market, betting, etc. The increase in the number of competitions corresponds to an arena where the states and groups confront one another directly on a saturated market. Sport is no more about men and women, these are performing commodities who flit between clubs or federations, sometimes for astronomical sums without having a say. This commercialisation of depersonalised sport, where individuals are turned into  deified stars, strengthens the cult of celebrity and is one of the expressions of the fetishism of the market. Whether he’s treated as a god or a mere thing, an object to be exchanged or exploited as capital, the professional sports-person is drastically subjected to the law of the market and profitability with the obligation of getting results. They are pushed towards a permanent extreme exploitation, pressured and constrained towards doping and planned self-destruction (we will confront these issues in a third article).

These robotic sports machines, in a context where the state plans de-politicisation and subservience, feed the grandiose spectacles to the extreme, for a sort of glorification, an apology for the established order and the ruling class. In all the big sporting spectacles, the politicians and people of the state are in the front rows in order to reap the political fruits of these stupefying grand-scale programmes. From the grand Nazi spectacles to the Stalinist exhibitions of yesterday, going into the mega-shows of the democracies today, these sporting masses conjure up a dream,  facilitate idolatry, by promoting the effort of muscle and sacrifice. They serve above all to fog the spirits, as does religion, and divert all reflection on the conditions of exploitation under capitalism. They're often aimed at obscuring truths which might result in criticism or class struggle, even to the point of acting as recruiting sergeant for war, as was the case in the 1930s.

Sport is clearly a counter to any form of subversion, aimed mainly at youth, notably in schools where it's used as a form of brain-washing. If this was done to the point of caricature in the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, it is presented much more subtly in the democracies. After May 68 in France, "the short-lived Minister of Sport, M. Nungesser, explained (...) that it was necessary to make sport compulsory in schools" in order to maintain social peace. In the same sense, M. Cornec, president of the student parent federation, stated in 1969: "In just a year France has been overturned by the revolt of youth. All those looking for solutions to this complex problem should know that no equilibrium can be found without the preliminary solution of school sports"[6]. In the same vein, the journal explains that it's better "to be involved in sport" than "to physically confront the police and the CRS". Subduing youth, using sport through its symbols and its universe of superstitions  - all that is very much in the optic of official democratic bourgeois ideology, with its myth of the "self-made man", of someone who can individually bring out his own qualities thanks to a military discipline. This egalitarian perspective, where 'everyone has a chance' conditional on their own work, can only dull the senses of those looking for a radical critique of society and those looking to develop a political critique of the established order.

Sport at the service of repression

At the same time as contributing to dulling the senses, sport prepares for a more direct repression. Sporting occasions have become pretexts for the deployment of imposing police forces in the name of the defence of public order and security. In the context of urban populations already submitting to a real police state, a total surveillance with the presence of armed police and soldiers regularly patrolling public places, stations for example, this strengthening of manpower around stadiums appears normal. Through the regular presence of cops and their vehicles, the state has gradually got people used to accepting the massive presence of the forces of repression of which it has the monopoly. We should remember that in the 1970's, the democratic states of western Europe didn't have words harsh enough to stigmatise the 'fascist regimes' and the 'dictatorships of Latin America' for organising the visible presence of the forces of order and the military in public places, notably around sports stadiums, as was the case in Argentina, Brazil or Chile at the time. In 1972, at the Winter Olympics of Sapporo in Japan, the presence of 4000 soldiers quartering the area was already noted. Today these same practices have not only been surpassed long ago in the lesson-giving democratic countries, but strengthened still more by much more draconian measures. It's no longer possible to go to a stadium without going through a real cordon sanitaire of cops, being hassled, body-searched and accompanied by security.

The Olympic Games of London in the summer of last year gave an illustration of this militarisation with the image of a real situation of war. Twelve thousand police and 13,500 military were active, that's to say more British troops than deployed in Afghanistan (9,500). More than the 20,000 soldiers of the Wehrmacht at Munich in 1936! To the British figures we can add another 13,300 private security agents. A ground-to-air missile was openly set up on top of a residential building in a densely populated zone for use as an armed air-shield. On the streets, special lanes were arranged for the official vehicles and forbidden to the hoi-polloi (with a fine of £135, 170 euros if you crossed the line). Finally, the security controls were worthy of the ordinary paranoia of all states: systematic body-searches on entering all sites, forbidden to bring water, drinks, etc., into the controlled zones, tweeting banned, sharing or posting photos of the event in whatever manner forbidden![7]

If one looks back, history shows that sporting complexes are real nerve centres allowing a part of the population to be penned in for repressive and even murderous ends. One of the most famous of these is the "Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv'" in France, a round up of Jews organised by French police and militias during summer 1942. This celebrated cycle-racing track thus served as a fortified camp where the Jews were penned in and held before their deportation to the extermination camp of Auschwitz where they were to meet the summits of horror. After the Second World War there are numerous examples of sporting enclosures at the service of death and state repression. In France, after the Vel' d'Hiv', other sporting installations were used for massacres of the Algerian opposition in October 1961. About 7000 of them were taken by force to the Palais des Sports de Versailles and the Pierre de Coubertin stadium in Paris, to be beaten up with a good number ending up as bodies thrown into the Seine! In June 1966 in Africa, opponents of the Mobutu regime were executed in front of a crowd in the stade des Martyrs in Kinshasa. In Latin America, stadiums weren’t only used as outlets for hungry populations. The Stadio nacional in Chile was also used a place for interrogations and a sorting-centre for the concentration camps after the coup of General Pinochet (September 1973). In Argentina at the time of the World Cup in 1978, with the military junta in power, the amplified noises of the terraced speakers covered up the screams of those being tortured. Still today a good number of stadiums have a macabre history. In 1994, the Amahoro stadium of Kingali was one of the theatres of the Rwandan genocide in which France was a big accomplice. This is shown in the witness of the commandant, R. Dallaire: "When the war began, the stadium was full and, at a given moment, there were up 12,000 people, 12,000 people trying to live. Everywhere you looked there were people and clothes, and the situation seemed to escape any control. It became like ... a concentration camp... We were there to protect them, but at this time they were dying in this great stadium of Rwanda"[8].

More recently still, the football stadium in Kabul has see numerous horrors: hangings from the crossbars, mutilations for those accused of thieving, women accused of adultery stoned on the ground, etc.[9] In South Africa, the new Cap stadium, inaugurated for the 2010 World Cup, includes cells to imprison 'agitated' supporters! 

Even if sporting practice is not always directly implicated, there does exist some sort of link between control of the spirit by sport, the sporting infrastructures and the barbarity of decadent capitalism. The exacerbation of the contradictions between the classes means that the stadiums are more and more often places of confrontations and tensions, even during the course of sporting events. We've thus seen real killings, revolts break out  in football stadiums. In Argentina, portraits of the disappeared have certainly been quietly brandished on the terraces at the time of matches. But as often, almost everywhere open tensions are expressed with violence, particularly at the stadium exits. Many are the situations where the worst ideologies, xenophobia and the most unbridled nationalism, have led to the real acts of barbarity..

In the next and last article in this series we will come back to these aspects in order to deepen the analysis.

WH (November 8 2012)



In this article, we said:  During the civil war in Spain, the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid served the Phalangists as a privileged arena in which to shoot Republican soldiers”. It seems that this information was doubly wrong. Firstly, the Bernabeu stadium wasn’t built and inaugurated until after 1945. Secondly, in order to instil a real terror in the population, planned executions generally took place in discrete locations: against the walls of cemeteries, near communal ditches, by the roadside, in the woods, etc.  In short, anywhere where you could easily bury or ‘disappear’ opponents of the regime. 

It was above all the arenas or the Plazas de Toros which were used for this kind of imprisonment. The most well known was the one in Badajoz where the Phalangists played at ‘bullfighting’ with the prisoners, sometimes giving them the ‘estocade’ with a sword. On a more secondary level the stadia made it possible to bring prisoners together when they were in transit. This was the case for example with the Metropolitano stadia (in 1939 in Madrid, this was the home of a rival to Réal), which served as an assembly point for those on the way to concentration camps. After the war, the function of the stadia was above all to provide circuses when there was not much in the way of bread. 

Despite this factual error, we think that the overall sense of the article, which tries to show the link between the ‘practical’ side of the stadia in the work of repression and their symbolic dimension in the ideological subjugation of the masses, remains perfectly valid.

ICC 4.5.2013


[1]J-M Brohm, Sociologie politique du sport, 1976, re-edition: Nancy, P.U.N., 1992.


[3]The Platform of the ICC.

[4]C. Sobry, Socio-economie du sport, coll. De Boek.

[5]K. Marx, 1844 Manuscripts.

[6]Quoted by J-M Brohm, Sociologie politque du sport, 1976, re-edition: Nancy, P.U.N.

[7]See the article on the Olympic Games on our website:



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