In 2010, social commentator and lecturer Terry Eagleton called for football to be abolished on the grounds that it was a political tool to distract the masses from the effects of capitalism. Manipulative and distracting, it was impeding the chances of a worker’s revolution. While his claim is slightly exaggerated, and his proposal extreme, this comment piece spurred a new examination — albeit a fleeting one — into the role of sport in modern society that we have yet to do justice to. Since then, we have seen the whole-hearted embrace of competitive sport by some of the most questionable regimes currently in operation. Far-right politicians such as Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, have used it as a platform to power, riding the nationalistic wave that came in the aftermath of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
As conversations about the problems of separating the art from the artist resurfaced in the wake of #MeToo, why are we so silent on similar problems of toxicity in sport?
In short, because it is too broad a sphere. Political writers and sociologists on either end of the political spectrum have avoided addressing the topic of sport for fear of alienating potential voter bases and audiences. It is seen as something untouchable, perceived to exist outside the realm of politics, as it transcends class. However, this is far from the case. Although a complete “fascistisation” of sport has not taken place, sport is as political as art, music, and film in that it can disguise ulterior motives for a mass audience.
This is not necessarily negative, however, or something to seek to change. As Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, says: “Sport is, at the end of the day, like a hammer. And you can use a hammer to bash someone over the head or you could use it to construct something beautiful.” The potential is there for communities to unite and rebuild using sport as a medium for bonding, as has been seen in working-class areas in the United Kingdom in particular. Principles such as fair play, teamwork, and meritocracy, can also be cited in defence of sport and its associated values — all seen to benefit those who participate. But what about the emphasis on physical perfection over other aspects of one’s self? The promotion of life as a competition, and the utilisation of public spectacle? Sport is not a dichotomy of good/bad. It is a simple act of physical exertion on which a myriad of factors and influences are projected. It is presented to us, the spectator, in neat packages of athletes, superstars, visionary coaches, or Mussolini’s New Man.
“Physical endurance was critical to a state involved in territorial expansion and warfare.”
Stemming from a hatred of the pre-WWI elites — characterised as bookish, weak, and cowardly — Mussolini’s New Man was the prototype of an “ideal” citizen in the modern world. Along with his physical strength, his commitment to his country and his people was publically displayed as a success of the state. Physical endurance was critical to a state involved in territorial expansion and warfare, as the success of both those actions relied on a large military force supplemented with conscription. The concept of citizen-as-soldier was not new, but in the promotion of physical education on both primary and secondary school level, it gained a new cultural acceptance. The prominence of public health and exercise as topics of public debate in the 19th century had paved the way for authoritarian governments to use state-funded sport as a means of appealing to the masses and winning them to the cause. Illustrated magazines like Lo sport fascista helped further the acceptance of fascism through the dissemination of the popular sport even to those who did not actively participate in it. If one were to look at Match Attax stickers through this lens, lunchtime in primary school seems like a much darker time.
In advocating this New Man, Mussolini and his followers were promoting the constructed masculine norms that continue to this day. With an emphasis on large builds and obvious muscles, they feed into one of the most toxic currents in professional sports — that of performance enhancing drugs and dietary supplements. Although frequently scrutinised in the media, along with “toxic masculinity,” the origins of the perceived need for these are not speculated.
Veering slightly off from fascism, a striking feature of sport and an example of how deeply entrenched it can become in a person’s psyche is the view of life as competition. As limited resources are normalised, competition amongst those who struggle the most intensifies, and true unity and communal spirit is crushed as your neighbour is “taking your job/food/housing/education”. Children cannot take part in the most creative of extracurricular activities without being entered into a competition by their parents, with medals and certificates and a showcase of the “best”. Any question of the nature of such activities is met with a predictable comments-section bemoaning “participation medals” and parents raising a generation of snowflakes who are averse to competition. However, those who hold such beliefs are stuck in the binary of life consisting of situations where you either win, or you lose. The idea that sport is an apt metaphor for life instills a steadfast belief in meritocracy, and curtails the tendency towards questioning the inherent unfairness of societal structures under capitalism. This argument cannot be countered by an acknowledgement that it is obvious that success in sport is biased towards teams with more money. The point is rather that while it is still possible for an individual with enough talent and dedication to be signed by Paris Saint Germain, such success stories cannot be taken as a guide for success in other areas of life, where factors such as class, ethnicity, and politics will always take precedence.
“Sport is, however, a medium which is very easily manipulated by fascists.”
The symbolic representation of conflict between nations is not an unfortunate coincidence; states have utilised such platforms for purely political gains in the public consciousness. No competition has been utilised in this manner more so than the modern Olympic games and the parade of nations. Every four years, over 200 countries enter a spectacular stadium waving their flags. Millions of people are reduced to a piece of cloth carried by their “best”, each state vying to appear superior by the end of the competition with the host nations themselves using the opportunity to produce their most blatant propaganda. “Them” versus “us” is normalised as we scream for one country over another, even when we have no connection to either, based purely off assumptions with little foundation to them.
This is not an argument against sport as a whole or an argument that sport is inherently fascist. Sport is, however, a medium which is very easily manipulated by fascists, and that has not been discussed at appropriate length like other factors, such as print media, have. Sport fits comfortably in the societies that fascist leaders aspired to create, it gave them a forum where they could visibly appeal to the masses and create a faux sense of unity. In return, sports organisers and bodies benefited from the state’s financial investment and the increased platform they received in the public consciousness — which they have been surviving and building on ever since.