The connection between sports and such political and social phenomena as imperialism and nationalism has been the focus of various academic studies. Imperialism is the desire of a country to gain control over and influence other countries. Nationalism is the belief that one nation is better than other ones. Analysis has shown that both imperialism and nationalism can be connected to sports and the sports paradigm. There are three major points of describing this connection: sports as a worldview, sports as a venue, and sports as a political tool.
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First, sports carry the worldview of competition, which is essentially linked to inequality and hierarchical separation (Coakley 73). Although social interactions are always based on systems with inequality of elements, sports take it further to the point where there are superiority and inferiority. Athletes should always strive to be the fastest, the strongest, and the most enduring. If you do not win, you lose. Suppose a nation adopts sports principles as the principles of the state, i.e., principles of policy-making, regulations, and social structure. In that case, it is an indication of certain developments within the nation’s country that promote the ideas of inequality and superiority, such as the ideas of imperialism and nationalism. For example, certain citizens may be deprived of certain rights due to their ethnicity; in the sports worldview, they become “losers” in the game.
Second, sports provide a venue for imperialism and nationalism. In international sports competitions, the stadium becomes a sort of a battlefield, and the game becomes a symbolic war. An important aspect of this process is that the playing teams are defined in terms of their nationalities (Gleaves and Llewellyn 1). Sports fans constitute an environment where the themes of nationalism and national superiority are popular (Bogdanov 20). These themes can promote violent actions such as attacks on the fans of other national teams.
Finally, there is the perspective that regards sports as a political and diplomatic tool. For example, it has been argued that promoting sports can be used as an instrument of raising and strengthening national sentiments of a country’s population and building soft authoritarian systems (Koch 42). In today’s world, sports remain an environment where political battles unfold. Construction and representation of national and cultural identities through sports conflict with the modern process of globalization (Maguire 978). Therefore, marginal political forces, such as nationalists, employ sports as a channel of communication and a source of recruiting supporters.
The role of sports in the development of imperialism and nationalism was examined by Markovits and Hellerman, who found that soccer and baseball shaped the American “hegemonic sports culture” (5), which, in turn, contributed to American exceptionalism. Exceptionalism can be regarded as a variation of nationalism and an element of imperialism. America opposes soccer with its most popular sport, which Americans call football. The second most popular sport, baseball, is regarded by Americans as national heritage, too. These sports serve as the environment of not only American exceptionalism but also it is positioning as a country that is separate from the rest of the world. The analysis showed that sports provide a context where nationalist ideas may accumulate more strength and influence.
In today’s democracies, the ideas of inequality and national superiority that are associated with imperialism and nationalism are condemned. However, marginal nationalist and imperial political forces keep looking for outlets where they can declare their ideas. One such outlet is sports, which is essentially about rivalry and competition, which promotes inequality and superiority. Therefore, sports may function as a worldview, a venue, and a tool for supporting and promoting nationalism and imperialism.
Bogdanov, Dusko. Measuring Nationalism as a Sports Fan Motive. Florida State University Press, 2016.
Coakley, Jay. “Ideology Doesn’t Just Happen Sports and Neoliberalism.” Journal of ALESDE, vol. 1, no. 1, 2011, pp. 67-84.
Gleaves, John, and Matthew Llewellyn. “Ethics, Nationalism, and the Imagined Community: The Case Against Inter-National Sport.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 41, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-19.
Koch, Natalie. “Sport and Soft Authoritarian Nation-Building.” Political Geography, vol. 32, no. 1, 2013, pp. 42-51.
Maguire, Joseph. “Globalization, Sport, and National Identities.” Sport in Society, vol. 14, no. 7, 2011, pp. 978-993.
Markovits, Andrei, and Steven Hellerman. Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism. Princeton University Press, 2014.