The History of Sport Under Capitalism (Part III) - Sport, nationalism and imperialism

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In the previous article in this series, we saw that sport concentrates nationalist ideology and that it is an instrument at the service of imperialism. It expresses all the monstrosity of decadent capitalism.


The "political neutrality" of sport is a myth! Along with the media, sport never ceases to cultivate the identification with chauvinism and nationalism. Sport is even a privileged means for distilling this noxious poison. After the trauma of the First World War, "the gap between the private and the public world was (...) filled in by sport. Between the two wars, sport as a mass spectacle was transformed into an interminable succession of gladiatorial combats between persons and teams symbolising the nation states"[1] .

Sport: a concentration of nationalism

Nationalism has thus been permanently maintained against the exploited by the rituals and symbolism which surround sporting encounters. Using sport for propaganda ends, contrary to what official history tells us, is not a particularity of Nazism or Stalinism, but a practice generalised throughout every country. To be convinced of it we only need to recall the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008 or London 2012, or the entry of the national football teams at big matches. The grand sporting spectacles provoke strong, collective emotions that are easily manipulated towards the universal codes of national symbols: "Which gives to sport a unique effectiveness in inculcating nationalist sentiments (...) it is the facility with which individuals (...) can identify themselves with the nation being symbolised"[2]. International competitions are often accompanied by military music and are systematically preceded or closed by hymns: "These matches are confrontations where the national prestige is at stake"[3]. In brief moments of sacred unions social classes are 'dissolved', denied, as spectators openly called to stand up and sing with their eyes fixed on the national flag or on the team which embodies it through its colours.

In South Africa for example, in the name of the fight against Apartheid, the colours of the rugby team were thus used by Mandela's ANC to channel the class struggle towards the national mystification[4]. Great sporting victories can also prolong this principle of blind submission in a sort of collective hysteria (as was the case with the victory of the Spanish team during the football World Cup of 2010, that of Italy some years earlier, or those of the French team in 1998...). The celebrations of these occasions are infested by flags and prefabricated national myths[5]. Finally, the war of titles, medals, nation against nation, tries to maintain, as at the front during military conflicts, this mental dependence by sowing the seeds of xenophobia and nationalist violence. Sport embodies the spirit of the state and is accorded the same ritual as the army: decorations, citations, medals, march pasts... As Rosa Luxemburg said during World War I: "The national interests are only a mystification having the aim of putting the labouring masses at the service of their mortal enemy: imperialism"[6].

An instrument at the service of imperialism

Sport has always been used in imperialist confrontations. The Olympic Games in Berlin 1936, for example, were the spearhead of the militarisation prefiguring the aggression of the Axis military bloc which fought for its 'vital space'. For the Nazis, the champions had to be "warriors for Germany, ambassadors of the 3rd Reich". According to Hitler, the sporting youth of Germany should be "as resistant as leather, as hard as Krupp steel"[7]. Sport prepared you for imperialist war and thus justified the "superiority of the Aryan race", despite the victories of the black American sprinter Jesse Owens, who made the Fuhrer explode with anger[8]. Every sporting meeting was a means for the Nazi regime to symbolically wave its flag over its coveted territories.

For the opposing military camp, sports meetings were also a way to physically and mentally prepare the resistance. Stalinist and social-patriotic organisations tried to organise a 'counter-Olympics' in Barcelona in July 1936, aiming to dragoon proletarians behind the flag of anti-fascism. If this sporting project didn't happen, due to the Francoist coup d'etat, it didn't stop the ideological adhesion to the future bloc of the Allies. Sport thus made its own small contribution, in one way and the other, to what was to become a new world butchery resulting in over 50 million deaths!

On the still-smoking ruins of this terrible conflict, the world sporting arena would then be dominated by the Cold War right up to the end of the 1990s. International competitions were now marked by the context of East-West opposition, the latter not that far from turning into a nuclear holocaust. During the whole phase of decadent capitalism, sports meetings had all been marked by tensions of an imperialist nature. The universality symbolised by the Olympics is a sinister piece of hypocrisy; these games represent a real basket case of divergent capitalist interests. In the 1920s for example, the vanquished, like Germany, were removed from the Games through revenge and reprisal. In 1948, Germany and Japan were excluded. At the Games of 1956 in Melbourne, the boycott by some countries (Holland, Spain, Switzerland...) was allowed, demonstrating a political reaction against Russian tanks in Budapest and feeding Cold War tensions. Let's note, on the other hand, that at Mexico in 1968, during the massacre of 300 students at the Place of Three Cultures, the great democracies were allowed to participate without any concern for the Games! In 1972, the Olympic Games in Munich were the theatre of acts of war. The Israeli team was taken hostage by Palestinian commandos: the outcome was a bloodbath, the massacre of 17 people! In the 1980's, the Moscow games, a real military hymn to the glory of the Stalinist regime, was boycotted by a   good number of western allies of the rival American bloc, including China, this time in opposition to the Russian intervention in Afghanistan! Balanced on the side of American imperialism, China also made use of the political dimension of sport with its "Ping-Pong" diplomacy. Today, the growth of the power of China onto the world imperialist scene, especially faced with the United States, is accompanied by very aggressive sporting records, revealing its heightened ambitions.

Every time, the states engaged have always presented athletes doped to the eyebrows as if they were 'at war', with 'the enemy', whether in the framework of rival military blocs, within the same bloc or, after their disappearance, between nations. Football has largely illustrated these tensions, feeding the climates of hatred in the crowds. Among the plentiful examples we can take up is the tragic episode of the match between Salvador and Honduras in 1969 for the 1970 World Cup qualifiers. This match was the prelude to a war between the two countries which ended up with at least 4000 deaths!

A mirror of the barbarity of decomposing capitalism

Sport more and more clearly expresses the rottenness of a bourgeois society without a future. The absence of perspectives, unemployment and misery gave birth in the 1970's, and above all the beginning of the 80's, to hordes of xenophobic hooligans under the influence of alcohol, sowing terror and hatred, particularly in the stadiums of the big cities hit by the crisis. They have regularly infested football matches in Britain and elsewhere, as was the case for example in May 1990 with the match of Dynamo Zagreb against Red Star Belgrade which ended up with an arranged battle resulting in hundreds of injuries and several deaths. This in itself contributed to the aggravation of the already existing nationalist tensions which eventually unfolded in the war in ex-Yugoslavia. Among the most radical Serb supporters was their war boss Arkan, specialist of ethnic cleansing and the nationalist later looked for by the UN for crimes against humanity.

Outside of this episode, of which there are many more examples, popular bourgeois sense has it that this growing violence comes from the fact that sport is more and more "gangrened by money and mafias". This obscures the reality that sport is itself a mafia and a pure product of capitalism! Football receives massive investments from a financially hypertrophied sector, from billionaires and broadcasting companies, behind which, in the final analysis, is the state itself. In the context of a catastrophic economic crisis, sport becomes a real casino game, the very symbol of a bankrupt mode of production. The big international sporting authorities, as the IOC (International Olympic Committee) or FIFA (International Federation of Football Associations), the big clubs that feed the hooligans and gangsters, some of which play the role of eminent representatives, the politicians and shady speculators, are involved in one scandal after another where the embezzlement of funds is only the tip of the iceberg[9]. Some brutal financial operations for building sporting complexes, as in China and South Africa in these last years, also witness the widespread violent practice of the expropriation of people living in misery who are thrown out onto the street for the occasion.

Every state and every kind of mafia speculates in the economic sector of sport and gambling. Some even buy entire clubs, like Qatar’s purchase of Paris-Saint-Germain, putting a great deal of money into this unproductive sector. It's the same in Britain for the big clubs. During the transfer window, a real 'meat market' of footballers, the transactions regularly serve to launder 'dirty' money. According to Noel Pons (a specialist in criminality): "Football clubs are of a type CAC 40, the phenomenon of money laundering must thus be at the same level as it can be for these enterprises"[10].

The other side of this coin is super-exploitation: aside from the overpaid stars and the shady agents, thousands of young sportsmen find themselves without contracts and pauperised. This is notably the case with some very young Africans who have been enticed with wonderful promises of life in Europe, who are then unscrupulously thrown onto the streets and who sometimes become paperless. Then there are the fixed matches which have affected an incalculable number of European and world matches. Italian football, which has a lot to answer for, shows that numerous players and leading figures are clearly linked to the political world and organised crime. Even sports which are presented as clean by the media, such as handball in France, are subject to some fixing and corruption. It's more the case with tennis, where the players paid in the corridors do not hesitate to lose matches in order to get more money.

All these gangster practices, which in the last instance are those of the state, don't stop there. They sometimes even threaten the security of the spectators, as for example in 1985 tragedy of the Heysel Stadium in Belgium. Here, under the weight of excited supporters, barriers gave way killing 39 with more than 600 injured! These tragedies are not unique. Built at low cost, overcapacity and crowd movement lead to catastrophes such as at Hillsborough, Sheffield in April 1989: 96 dead and 766 injured. At the Furiani Stadium in Bastia on May 5 1992, down to a question of profitability, a temporary terrace suddenly collapsed just before kick-off leading to 18 deaths and 2300 injured.

Doping: a pure expression of this decadent world

We don't want to finish without raising the frantic and scandalous exploitation of the athletes themselves, in particular being doped to their physiological limits and even to death. At the beginning of the last century, doping substances such as strychnine was already commonplace. Very soon, for the state, "sport became the experimental science of body output which demanded the creation of laboratories of sporting medicine, perfecting experimental material and various tools and opening specialised sporting institutes"[11]. In 1967, everyone was shocked by the death of the British cyclist Tom Simpson on the slopes of Mount Ventoux, but doping had been institutionalised for a long time. As the old doctor of the Tour de France, Jean-Pierre Mondenard underlined: "At this high level sport is a school for cheating". Today the medical aspects and doping are intimately linked. Steroids, anabolics, EPO, blood-transfusions are used all the time in competitions, surrounded by the medical teams of all the big stables. It goes without saying that this phenomenon affects all sports at the highest levels. Rugby for example is concerned with the formation of young players. This is shown in the testimony of a young player of 24 years old, today sick, his career broken: "We arrive at the training centre. Here there's much talk about ‘real’ doping. Some of my team-mates are injecting themselves with substances, some veterinary products provided by a doctor who tours around the club. There's talk of clenbuterol and salbutamol, calf and bull anabolics. You don't buy anything on the internet but try to meet the right person. The doctor makes the first injections and you do the next". He adds precisely: "Omerta is already very strong in the sporting milieu and it's even more so when it concerns adolescents"[12]. Used up and prematurely ruined, sports people suffer from very serious troubles: cardiac and circulatory incidents, renal and hepatitis insufficiencies, cancers, impotence, sterility, problems for pregnant women, muscular-skeletal sicknesses, etc. A good number of athletes of the highest level die before forty! The example of the East German women swimmers, which already revealed all the brutality and capitalist horror of state planning, has since been largely surpassed. All the same, we can recall that like other athletes, these swimmers were doped by force, unknown to themselves. Watched by the special services (Stasi, KGB) in all their movements, these athletes could not communicate with people in the west on pain of reprisals against their families. Some became 'men' on the hormonal level (strong pilosity, libido trouble, hypertrophied clitoris...) thanks to pills and daily injections given by specialised doctors[13]. They were subjected to all sorts of blackmail and to silence by the state. One survey counted more than 10,000 victims! Today we have the very well known case of cycling, the Festina affair[14]. Here the deception of the riders is as much as victims and scapegoats, as the cyclist Lance Armstrong who has recently been stripped of his titles with the loss of 7 of them including the Tour de France and his yellow jerseys. This is witness to the fact that the laws of capital stop at nothing in front of profit.

The 'sporting ethic' is that of capitalism! It can be summed up in a few words: ambition, cheating, corruption, hypocrisy, fight to the death, violence and brutality! The paraplegic sports and games show the same logic of a sordid competition unfolding into a sort of 'war of the prostheses'.

Sport today reveals itself only a pure illusion. It is at best a reactionary utopia and at worst a real swindle.

Conclusion: sport and communism

The attempts to utilise sport in decadence to promote workers' struggle has only accentuated an opportunist gangrene and stimulated conservative forces. There can't be any 'proletarian sport'. At the time of the world revolutionary wave of 1917-23, the setback of the programme of the Red Sport International (founded in 1921) was linked to the historical and political conditions of the moment, those of decadent capitalism and the tragic isolation of the revolution in Russia. The sporting Central Asian Games, organised in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) by the Bolsheviks in 1920, aroused nationalist sentiments and strengthened the local states, a real mosaic of the ex-Russian empire, which only increased political confusion. Worse, it solidified the cordon sanitaire of the Entente troops around the besieged Russian soviets. The Spartakiades of Moscow in 1928, completed the defence of the 'socialist country' through sporting games which already embodied the counter-revolution. The only real 'triumph' was that of Stalinism, exhibiting with pride his 'Bolsheviks of Steel'! Marx underlined that communist society would make "the practical demonstration of the possibility of uniting learning and gymnastics with work and vice-versa". This in the perspective of realising "the complete man"[15]   If Lenin and the Bolsheviks defended such a vision at the beginning, they didn't have the time or the possibility of seeing this work accomplished. Stalinism created the opposite: a medicalised caricature of monstrous robots! It's naturally difficult to glimpse the communist society of the future. But it is certain that sport, such as it exists now, will disappear in a society without social classes. It's much more difficult for an amateur to conceive of that today because it's dependent on seeing a world without addictions[16]. To all sorts of artificial separations between physical and intellectual activity, to forced opposition between players and spectators, must be substituted a human world, unitary, creative and free. Thus, "the complete man" dear to Marx, will find in communism his true social nature: “Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form – in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being…Just as through the movement of private property, of its wealth as well as its poverty – of its material and spiritual wealth and poverty – the budding society finds at hand all the material for this development, so established society produces man in this entire richness of his being produces the rich man profoundly endowed with all the senses – as its enduring reality.[17]. This 'rich' man will thus express his true individuality within a superior harmony, through the dialectical unity of body and mind.

WH (December 20, 2012)

[1]E. Hobsbawn, Nations and nationalism since 1780, History folio.

[2]Op. Cit.

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

[4]Note that we are now seeing German national flags in the crowds at sporting occasions, conforming to new German imperialist ambitions; this after years of quiet imposed by an awkward past.

[5]As for example the "black-blanc-beur" ideology in France: an allusion to the tricolore "bleu-blanc-rouge" and national unity, beyond skin colour and origins, behind the Republican state in a type of sacred union.

[6]Junius Pamphlet, 1915.

[8]There wasn't much more enthusiasm for him from the American bourgeoisie which was then marked by divisive and bloody racial prejudices.  In fact, black minorities were marginalised from the 1904 Olympic Games in Saint-Louis. Special competitions called "anthropological days" were even organised and reserved for those the "officials" considered as "sub-human". Victims of segregation and lynchings, black minorities later reacted by struggling on the basis of identity, including the famous "Black Panthers", embodied on the podium of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, by the raised fists and black gloves of the runners Smith and Carlos.

[9]One scandal among others was the candidatures of Salt Lake City to the Winter Games of 2002, where members of the IOC accepted bribes to influence the election.

[11]J-M Brohm, Sociologie politique du sport, 1979, re-edition: Nancy, P.U.N., 1992.

[13]Note that the East German trainers even got their sports women pregnant; at three months, the women would have produced more testosterone and would have performed better!

[14]In order to give an idea of the phenomenon of doping today, an example: the record of the Australian Stephanie Rice (400 metres at Peking in 2008) is inferior by 7 seconds to that of the ex-champion of the east , Petra Schneider (1980 in Moscow), reputed to be loaded up with steroids!

[15]Marx quoted by J-M Brohm, Sociiologie politique du sport 1976, re-edition: Nancy, P.U.N., 1992.

[16]In July 1998, the boss of the cycling team Festina, Willy Voet, was arrested by customs. He was carrying ampoules of EPO, amphetamine capsules, solutions of hormone growth and flasks of testosterone.

[17] Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, ‘Private property and communism’



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