Exploring the intersection between sports and politics

By Chris Chiu, MA Candidate, Cultural Studies & Critical Theory

As the world turns its attention to Pyeongchang, South Korea and the athletes from 92 countries at the 2018 Winter Olympics, we see many things. For some, the Olympics are a form of light-hearted, child-friendly entertainment. From the extravagant opening ceremonies showcasing the beauty and history of the host country, to the “passing of the baton” to the next host country in the closing ceremonies, the Olympics, on the surface, are an opportunity for athletes and spectators from diverse cultures, languages, and religions to come together and participate in peacemaking and cultural exchange.

This is made visible through the exchanges of handshakes and hugs on the podium and footage of fans from a plethora of countries dancing together on the bleachers, and, momentously, by the shared entry of the Koreas, South and North. However, just because there is an atmosphere of camaraderie throughout the games, it would be naive to believe that the Olympics are an apolitical grace period in which countries will set aside their differences, disputes, and politics (both internally and globally) for the sake of sport.

As shown repeatedly over the course of sporting history, the arena of sport never exists in a vacuum and must be regarded as an always-political space. In some cases, it may even heighten or magnify the political aspects of society. Take, for example the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Nazi-controlled Berlin. On one hand, sport was merely a distraction, overlaid on top of a complex political landscape. Due to Germany’s questionable views on race during this time, many Western countries proposed boycotts on these games, exercising their political power on the sporting world at the expense of the work athletes had already done training for the games. On the other hand, sport itself was also used as a tool for political and human rights mobilization.

During that Olympics, the spread of Aryan-supremacy propaganda was rampant in Germany, touting whiteness as the superior race. However, if one were to read African-American track athlete Jesse Owen’s four gold medal wins from a critical and political perspective, his dominance within the sporting arena can be read as a subversive act that worked to deconstruct Germany’s toxic ideologies of Aryan superiority.

To bring up more recent sporting examples, the way American athletes within the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) have been using their celebrity and digital platforms to critique Donald Trump’s views on race relations in the United States ushers in a new era of politics and sports mixing.

In the NBA, perennial all-star Stephen Curry’s (of the Golden State Warriors) refusal to attend the traditional (and formerly coveted) White House visit designated for championship teams stemmed from him believing that Trump did not represent the interests of marginalized people in America. With the memory of how poorly Trump handled his business in the wake of the Charlottesville riots just weeks before, Curry, along with the rest of his teammates, decided to skip the White House visit to protest the ongoing racial injustice in America.

In the NFL, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to silently protest the same issue through kneeling during the national anthem created a national outrage and divide almost as large as Trump’s inauguration itself.

What makes both of these cases interesting however, is the role social media plays in both these scenarios. With the advent of Web 2.0, which essentially allows individuals to have their own personalized online spaces (think Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.), athletes now have more autonomy and freedom in how they choose to interact with their fans and their communities.

Traditionally, even if we were to think about the world a mere decade ago, athletes were often presented as one-dimensional characters: slaves to the sports and media corporations that controlled their public image. Aside from their on-court appearances, the only other times athletes’ voices would be heard would be through post-game interviews, talk shows, or commercials, all of which were meticulously controlled so the material would be safe and sanitized for public consumption. Athletes were discouraged from having any personal ideologies or politics of their own, as that could affect ratings and, ultimately, the profits of many stakeholders.

William C. Rhoden, an award-winning sports columnist for the New York Times, coined the “Conveyor Belt” theory as a way to understand the grooming and formation of athletes, especially in America. Especially for athletes of colour, there is an added imperative in this system to provide sports empires with the “right” athletes – ones who can be easily stripped of their racial consciousness. Those who bring forth their own politics are deemed, under Rhoden’s theory, as “troublemakers.”

However, with social media, especially Twitter, athletes have now become their own PR managers and their own content creators, allowing them to subvert a punishing system and express themselves in unprecedented ways. This “snatching-away” of power from centralized media and sports empires gives athletes a tremendous amount of cultural and political power, especially if one were to think about how large some players’ follower counts are and how quickly content can get shared, retweeted or favourited.

For example, when Trump took to Twitter to criticize Curry’s decision to skip the White House visit, dozens of prominent NBA players both past and present immediately hopped onto Twitter to defend one of their own. Iconic athlete Lebron James’ tweet calling Trump a “bum” received 1.5 million favourites and over 650,000 retweets, and is the 12th most-liked tweet in Twitter’s 11-year history. This type of political agency and activism would have undoubtedly been quickly stifled under a traditional media regime. Social media’s decentralizing affordances can allow athletes to exercise their celebrity platforms to create, or at the very least spark conversations about, social change.

The Olympics are being held this year in an environment of heightened global tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world, ongoing violence between world nations, and also internal political turmoil within certain countries themselves. In this context, social media might allow athletes to leverage their star status, especially under the spotlight of an international sporting event, to spark productive political conversations and peacemaking efforts can be expected to rise.

Whether for issues going on in their own countries, or for athletes who may not have the political voice in their own communities, these Olympics have already acquired a degree of prominence. From the legal drama around doping and national team participation, to the establishment of a dual role for Canada House in support of international LGBTQ athletes, within the shelter of understanding and support that we offer our own, to the joint entry of the Koreas, these Olympics stand on the cusp, filled with the potential for a timely re-fresh of geopolitics, and realization of Olympic dreams.

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