Players of the San Francisco 49ers American football team kneel during the national anthem in protest against racism, 2017.
Players of the San Francisco 49ers American football team kneel during the national anthem in protest against racism, 2017. Wikimedia / Keith Allison

Sport and politics — an (un)happy relationship?

This year’s hosting of the Winter Olympics and the Football World Cup by, respectively, China and Qatar – both authoritarian states – has sparked debate about the influence of politics in sport. A look at history shows that sport and politics have always gone hand in hand.

Simon Engel

Simon Engel

Simon Engel is a historian and is responsible for public relations work at Swiss Sports History.

When Marco Odermatt fights for Olympic glory on the ski slopes over the next two weeks, and Melanie Hasler does the same on the bobsleigh track, it’s unlikely they’ll be doing it for political reasons. While Odermatt and Hasler will be starting under the Swiss flag, and in the eyes of the public they represent our country on the international stage, only someone with a vivid imagination would put any sort of political spin on their swings to the left and right during a race. Logically, the sports-based actions of athletes are not in themselves political, but...
  • ...sport always reflects societal ideas about the body, gender or origin. For example, the division into ‘typical’ men’s and women’s sports, such as football and rhythmic gymnastics respectively, can be traced back to biologistic notions and the corresponding understandings of gender roles from the 19th century. Over the past 50 years these ideas have been kicked out of some sports; the general socio-political struggles and developments have also had an impact in sport.
  • ...due to the high level of spectator and media interest, sportsmen and women, but also politicians, use sport as a platform for their political messages.
  • ...even the awarding of sports events to particular hosts is always a political issue. Awarding such events to authoritarian countries raises questions, especially in the western world, about human rights; in addition, candidates for award are sponsored and financially supported by politics.
  • ...the admission to an international association of a territory that defines itself as a newly independent state can be read as a political statement if the status of that territory is contentious within the global community (see Kosovo and Taiwan).
In a nutshell, sport moves within a triangle of ‘M’s: mass (in the sense of audience interest and corresponding media interest), markets (i.e. commercial interests), and might or power (in the sense of societal and political interests or exertion of influence). Within this triangle, mass is the basis for the other two Ms, because mass is what political players need in order to showcase themselves and their ideas. The fact that any sports occasion is perceived ostensibly as an athletic competition, and not as a political event, also makes it ideal for this purpose.
Newspaper article on American dancer Martha Graham’s refusal to take part in a dance competition as part of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Martha Graham did not take part in the Games as a protest, saying she would find it impossible “to dance in Germany at the present time”.
Newspaper article on American dancer Martha Graham’s refusal to take part in a dance competition as part of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Martha Graham did not take part in the Games as a protest, saying she would find it impossible “to dance in Germany at the present time”. Library of Congress
Over time, a wide array of protagonists has used the masses to their advantage. In ancient times athletic events were held in honour of the gods, and were a platform for spreading propaganda against non-Greeks; in the Middle Ages preachers did the rounds of knightly pageants recruiting participants for the crusades; in the modern era the Nazi regime turned the Olympic Games of 1936 into a spectacle of propaganda; in 1968 at the Olympic Games in Mexico, US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists to protest against racism in the USA; and in 1980, mostly western nations boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow to protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. In return, the Eastern Bloc stayed away from the Los Angeles Games four years later. Right now, for example, many of Switzerland’s top female football players are publicly calling attention to their comparatively low pay, adding their voices to the present-day demand for gender equality.
14th century tournament scene, illustration in the Codex Manesse.
At the tournament in Écry (now Asfeld, France) in November 1199, the preacher Fulk of Neuilly persuaded many of those present to join the Fourth Crusade. 14th century tournament scene, illustration in the Codex Manesse. Heidelberg University
Athletes of both sexes, and politicians, actively use the high-profile platform of sport for political purposes, while most sports associations take the position of being apolitical, or at least politically neutral. From their perspective, the ideal of non-political sport is understandable: sport should be open to everyone, and the main focus should be on playing sport. In addition, the ones who are hurt most by political decisions such as a boycott are usually the athletes themselves, and they’re the ones we want to protect. In the case of global organisations such as the IOC or FIFA, there is also the fact that a huge array of social and political values from different countries is brought together under the organisation’s umbrella. While the charter may profess to support universal human rights, in the end these associations function primarily according to the principle of the lowest common denominator: the unifying ability of sport, and the distribution of large sums of money. On account of their financial clout, the major organisations at least have a certain standing when it comes to politics. Nonetheless, every sports association has to learn to live with local laws and political authorities, because the state has always been a key sponsor and promoter of sport. In Switzerland the state provides substantial funding for facilities for grassroots sport, while specifically funding top athletes in professional sport. In 2021, Sports Minister Viola Amherd felt compelled to intervene due to abuse in the Swiss Gymnastics Federation, and to enforce a policy of increased state monitoring in the area of sports ethics.
The Swiss national team with banner protesting French atomic bomb testing, at their game against Sweden in the autumn of 1995.
The Swiss national team with banner protesting French atomic bomb testing, at their game against Sweden in the autumn of 1995. Swiss National Museum
Such direct and radical interventions in sport by the state and policymakers have been quite rare after World War II, since sports associations and the state have gradually arrived at an agreement on a clear division of roles: the government is concerned primarily with infrastructure and development policies and objectives, while the sports associations are organised under private law and are largely free to operate as they see fit in their day-to-day dealings. However, before the war, especially in the 1930s, there were efforts by policymakers and public authorities to ensure sport was more closely organised under the state’s auspices. Especially in the context of the impending world war and Switzerland’s policy of 'spiritual national defence', sport was seen as a preventive weapon. It was felt that sports activities should never be purposeless; they should primarily revolve around civic duties such as military service. But for financial reasons, and because in Switzerland there have always been strong civic sports organisations focused on public health, these plans could never really be implemented.
Federal Councillor Rudolf Gnägi presents the cup trophy to FCZ captain Fritz Künzli, 18 May 1970.
Federal Councillor Rudolf Gnägi presents the cup trophy to FCZ captain Fritz Künzli, 18 May 1970. ETH Library Zurich
However, the state was able to control this enterprise to a large extent through the allocation of financial assistance, especially because private sports sponsorship provided very small sums compared to today. For a long time, it was the gymnastics movement that benefited most from these subsidies, as it had begun to work with the political and governing elites much earlier. The first gymnasts were closely associated with the formation of the federal state in 1848, and publicly embodied the unity of Switzerland in a democratic-liberal sense. In 1874, as part of an army reform, school gymnastics lessons were also made compulsory for boys and preliminary military instruction was introduced so that the young men would be as fit as possible when they entered military service. Even the sports associations established subsequently had, to a certain extent, to bow to the intermeshing of patriotism, state sponsorship and physical fitness, as the gymnasts had done since at least 1874.
PE lesson for pupils at a Basel grammar school, 1897
PE lesson for pupils at a Basel grammar school, 1897. In its beginnings, physical education at school was envisaged as preparation for military service. Swiss National Museum
The Swiss Football Association, for example, specifically sought to maintain proximity to the government and the political arena. Football quickly became popular in Switzerland, but the state didn’t put its intellectual and financial support behind the game until the association presented its development ideals as being a patriotic activity and in the interests of the state by, among other things, playing down the foreign influences in the early football movement and, in 1938, reintroducing a ban on professional football. In the same year, the Swiss national football team beat the much-hated Nazi Germany team 4 - 2 in a shock result. The sensational victory unleashed a wave of national delirium and media hype, which politicians were quick to exploit; several days later, Federal Councillor Rudolf Minger attended the footballers’ cup finale, the first Federal Government representative to do so. The football association considered this unexpected attendance of a high-ranking guest to be the highlight of the season.
The Swiss and German national football teams before their round of 16 match in the football World Cup in June 1938, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris.
The Swiss and German national football teams before their round of 16 match in the football World Cup in June 1938, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. Keystone/Photopress Archiv/Str
Depending on the context, the involvement of politics in sport can be subtle, but it can sometimes be accompanied by much public fanfare as well. Depending on how you look at it, sport and politics have a happy or an unhappy relationship. The only thing that’s clear is that it’s hard to have one without the other.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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