This year, India celebrated the glory of its athletes at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, but also saw the significant exclusion of the All India Football Federation from FIFA. What makes sports exhilarating and the center of attention? Individual striving or the allegorical status associated with nationalism? Winning a World Cup fills the chest with pride and losing the same has to be coped with the memories of the glorious past. Sports and nationalism possess identical features: myths, fervent fever, fostering a common identity, and most of all, the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative.
Fans would disagree with George Orwell’s famous aphorism, which defines sports as “war minus the shooting”. They would argue that their source of recreation has nothing to do with politics. Let alone war. But it is historically clear that both nationalism and resistance to nationalism have accompanied the evolution of modern sports. Everyone knows Tendulkar, for he represents a remarkable brand of patriotism. Everyone also knows Muhammad Ali, for he resisted serving Vietnam in 1967, becoming the icon of the civil rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam war movement.
There are several ways in which nationalism and sports intertwine. Since sports are popular culture, politicians try to create a likeable persona by showing interest, hence using it as a political resource. Sometimes to deflect conflict, other times, to ease diplomatic relations. For instance, US President Nixon maneuvered a visit to China when the latter invited the American table tennis team to compete against the Chinese team. The tactic, however, does not always end well; as with President Bush. He credited US military action in the Middle East for the success of the Iraqi soccer team in the 2004 Summer Olympics. He was severely criticized, and rightfully so, for making such a rash statement.
While elected officials use sports for somewhat selfish reasons, the players use their bread and butter to highlight what is wrong with the system. But it often comes with collateral damage. As mentioned above, Muhammad Ali refused to draft into the army because he did not endorse war. He “used violence inside the ring to promote peace and justice outside of it” (Gorsevski and Butterworth, 2011). He was imprisoned, fined, and stripped of his championship. Similarly, the International Olympics Committee dismissed John Carlos and Tommie Smith in 1968 for their protest against racism. It was not until decades later that these athletes found support for their political stand.
We are familiar with the idea of sports fostering national identity. Most games begin with national anthems of the playing teams. The gesture is taken for granted as if it were part of the sport itself. The media contributes to the narrative as they eulogize sports-people as mythical figures who accomplish grand achievements for the sake of their fellow citizens.
“What has made sport uniquely effective as a medium for inculcating national feelings, at all events for males, is the ease with which even the least political or public individual can identify with the nation as symbolised by young persons excelling as something practically every man wants to be good at. The imagined community of millions (nation) seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”– EJ Hobsbawm
The most prominent example of this obvious relationship is the quadrennial event of the Olympics. The opening ceremony traditionally involves a Parade of Nations. Athletes cannot enter the competition as individual competitors, but can only participate as national representatives. Olympics, therefore, laminates individuals striving as worthy of appreciation only when it brings laurels back home.
The problem with sports becoming a national identity lies in its equating a good fan with a good citizen. Fans are still expected to root for their favorites’ when a team does not play well. If we were to apply the same logic to politics, would then a good citizen be obliged to accept the decisions of its government without questioning its soundness? Is then the criticism of a public policy enough to condemn a citizen as anti-national?
Besides, it is the athletes who incur a loss in any given scenario. Be it when a nation withdraws from international competitions for political reasons or when the players express their critical view of the status quo. Even the romanticism of them as heroic figures is problematic. It is commonplace to send death threats to sports-persons, who are also human and inevitably bound to fail sometimes. After all, losing a game means embarrassing the nation in front of the entire world.
Not to mention how loss in sports is usually attributed to historically disadvantaged groups. When the Indian women’s hockey team lost to Australia in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, two upper caste men were quick to reproach Vandana Katariya. They said the loss was due to “too many Dalits on the team”. Of course, sports can divert one’s attention from real issues. But the very same sports often involve the problems that we desperately wish to escape from.
In India, cricket takes the crown as the ultimate “patriotic litmus test” (MukulKaravan, 2021). Imagine watching cricket and not rooting for India, but the opposing side. Even the idea of it sounds utterly perverse. That is because patriotism in our country is synonymous with cricket.
Is then there a way to enjoy sports without the national lens shoved in front of our eyes? Perhaps one would mention club and franchise sports, a consequence of contemporary capitalism. The India Premier League is a domestic event primarily meant for Indian spectators. It has gained immense popularity since its advent in 2008, particularly for the team spirit displayed by players, irrespective of their nationalities. Could IPL, ridiculed for being theatrical, actually be more professional than the less profitable international competition? The answer could not be more distant from a yes. Militaristic chauvinism is just as home at IPL as it is during the World Cup season. The American National Football League suffers from the same fate. No national teams, but nationalism remains intact.
Alisha Uvais is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Maria Aqdas