Nationalism & Sports—What Governments Can Do to Limit Violent Sporting Habits - Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

According to surveys and studies from Pew Research Centre, a leading American think-tank, high rates of nationalism can still be seen in the United Kingdom, Russia, and across the European Union. In the UK, 46% of people believe their culture is superior to others. The same sentiment is reflected in the EU with a country median of 45% believing so. The same study also shows that roughly one-third of the UK and EU would not accept a Muslim person as a member of their family, and 22-23% would not accept a Jewish family member (Joshi and Evans). Another Pew study, this one focusing on Russian nationalistic sentiment, showed that 30% of Russians agree that the fall of the USSR was a “tragedy” and that Russia should still be an empire (Pew Research Centre). These numbers show high rates of nationalism internationally, exacerbated by imperialistic ideals, a lack of government prevention, and sometimes even nationalistic government propaganda (Arnold).


In December of 1945, English novelist and essayist George Orwell published “The Sporting Spirit”, a critical essay on the rise of hatred and nationalism in sports. Orwell uses the example of violence and hooliganism in 1940s European football to show how nationalism in sports shows itself in spectator violence and nationalistic glory and pride. Through the lenses of politics and history, some of the sociocultural effects of sports can be seen in its encouragement of violent or extreme nationalism when left without proper government intervention.


Nationalism manifests in sports through projection of national prestige into international sporting achievements and spectator violence while simultaneously acting as a catalyst for even more nationalism, which in short, creates violence, extremism, and international tension. Some modern-day examples of this include the 1969 Football War between El Salvador and Honduras, the 2009 Egyptian-Algerian World Cup Dispute, and the 2014 Serbian-Albanian Drone Conflict (Bertoli). The question is, as institutions tasked with the protection of its citizens and maintenance of peaceful relations, what can governments do to limit the spread of violent and extremist nationalism that comes with linking national glory with international sporting achievements?


International sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup are avenues of symbolic competition between nations, often used to consolidate and spread nationalist pride and propaganda. The manifestation of nationalism in sports has expressed itself in spectator and athlete violence, government propaganda, and national and ethnic tension such as those previously listed and those described by Orwell. According to Orwell, in sports games, “as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused”. The manifestation of this use of sports to represent some larger unit for prestige or other goal can clearly be seen in the Olympic Games.


Corroborating this are Verity Postlethwaite and Jonathan Grix, researchers from the University of Worcester and the University of Birmingham respectively, and their studies into how the Olympics play an important role in defining a country’s image and influence on the global stage. In their paper for the journal Diplomacy and Statecraft, they use Bosnia as an example of governmental attempt to gain momentum and leverage in the wider international community through recognition in the International Olympic Committee (IOC).


As a major international organization, the IOC is a key actor in international affairs with the power to determine which and to what extent countries are recognized on a global scale (Postlethwaite and Grix). Their research is supported by that of Dario Brentin and Loïc Tregoures, researchers on European Studies from the Universities of Graz and Lille, on how Kosovo utilized the Olympics and national representative sports in order to gain global recognition as a newly independent country. By projecting national recognition onto sports, nations have linked national pride and identity with international sports, thus turning sports and sporting achievements into an extension of national ability, reputation and influence, and, as Orwell would say, national prestige.


As seen in Orwell’s essay and in previous examples, the linking of sporting achievement and national glory can often lead to violent and extreme nationalism as people project their patriotism and national pride onto sports. As Orwell wrote, “I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism”. Andrew Bertoli, an assistant professor focusing on how sports influences world politics at IE University, stated the majority of fans root for their countries only because of national identification, and the very act of cheering for one’s side is an expression of nationalism, which results in division as well as intra-national and international honour-based violence.


However, according to Geoffrey Pigman, professor of Political Science at the University of Birmingham, historically, international sports have been a way to promote peace and unity. As seen by the ancient Greek Olympic Truce, warring governments would put aside their differences and suspend warfare temporarily in order for the games to take place (Pigman). Pigman further states that “spectators supporting different sides at live international sporting events are brought together, ideally at least, by a shared love of the game”, contradicting Bertoli’s claim that representative sports creates division. However, Pigman acknowledges that unity through love of the game is an ideal and may not always be the case as there may be intervening factors such as the strong emotions of people and previous nationalistic actions from governments that project pride onto sports.


Nationalism is strongest when the people of a nation take great pride in their national identities but nonetheless feel as though they have been wronged or oppressed by other nations. As a result, the nation or people as a whole have a strong desire to prove themselves to the rest of the world. The causes behind nationalism include, but are not limited to, the growth of a strong bureaucratic state that creates cultural uniformity and assimilation, patriotism, and perceived national humiliation. These causes aid in explaining why it often manifests itself in international sports, where competition and prestige between countries is highlighted and clearly ranked and displayed.


According to Randall Collins from the University of Pennsylvania, mass participation in nationwide nationalistic rituals, whether it be physical violence or flag displays, often occurs when states grow as a response to internal divisions and change. In urban China, Jackson Woods from the University of Pennsylvania Centre for the Study of Contemporary China and Bruce Dickson, a professor of Political Science and International Relations from Washington University, found that much of China’s nationalism comes from patriotism and national pride—the idea that their nation is and should be recognized as the best. This strongly correlates with anti-foreign resentment from perceived national humiliation, which in this case comes from residual anger at Japan due to their actions against China during World War II (Woods and Dickson). These factors and causes behind nationalism help explain how nationalism and sports tie together and how nationalism is exacerbated by sports.


International sports fits all three criteria of creating nationalism as it establishes the success of one country over others, fuels and brings out patriotism, and is strongly tied to national pride and therefore national humiliation in cases of defeat. As citizens unite behind their national representative teams due to their national identity and patriotism, they cheer for a victory that would establish their country’s dominance and superiority. If they were to lose, however, anti-foreign resentment directed towards the winning teams and countries would increase as people feel humiliated and angry at their nation’s loss. According to Morgan, historian and researcher from the University of Tennessee, sports plays a role in the creation and maintenance of national identities by creating nationalism fueling it via international sports. The main causes of nationalism are not only found in competitive international sports, but are a major part of it as the actions of their spectators are built upon nationalism.


Multiple governments have already acknowledged and addressed the issue of nationalism in sports, but with varying degrees of effectiveness overall and towards the elimination of nationalism. According to Valentine, an assistant professor in the Physical Education department at MacEwan University, Canadian football is a major part of Canadian identity and is therefore used by Canada’s government to resist foreign cultural imperialism. As the dominance of American culture and Americanization make up the leading threats against Canadian culture, the Canadian government and the Canadian Football League passed legislation throughout the late 20th century forbidding Canadian football teams from joining American leagues and American teams from joining Canadian leagues (Valentine). This created tension between the two countries and fueled division between athletes and supporters.


Further research on official government reactions to nationalism and sports have been carried out by Arnold, the Associate Professor of Political Science at Muskingum University, on the Russian government. He claims that the Russian government has used sports to their advantage as a form of state propaganda in order to promote Russian nationalism instead of limiting it. As a result, and as previously stated, studies by Pew Research Centre show that Russia currently has high rates of violent nationalism and Soveit imperialism, arguably exacerbated by the nationalistic actions of the Russian government with regards to sports.


In order to limit the violent and nationalistic responses to sports, governments should first implementing policies and laws to prevent hooliganism and athlete violence and providing education on the dangers of extremism. In addition to this, perceptions of international sports should be reframed as friendly international relations instead of overt competition for superiority. By passing and enforcing legislation and policy against sport hooliganism, the immediate issue of spectator and athlete violence can be addressed and limited. The actions of the Canadian and Russian governments have weaponized international sports, turning it into a tool for a nation’s protection and aggression. In these two countries, the nationalistic ties in sports have been used to solidify national identity and as a show of power towards other nations without regard to the violent or extremist outcomes that have arose.


By reframing sports as friendly international relations instead of a show of dominance over others, the projection of pride and identity onto sports can be minimized, decreasing the nationalistic ties and leading to an overall decrease in violence and extremism from sports. This solution may be hard to realize as it is difficult to undo years of nationalistic habits and thought processes and governments may not be willing to give up sports as a relatively easy path to strong national identity and international power. As Canada and Russia have shown, it is much easier and much more tempting for governments to use sports as a nationalistic tool for their own benefit and consolidation of power, despite the violence, tension, and other harms of nationalism. While there is indeed no precedent, this solution would solve the key issue, which is the linking and manifestation of nationalism in sports. By removing or at the very least limiting that relationship, the amount of violence that comes with it as well as some of the catalysts for the current high rates of nationalism could be decreased.


As an expression of international diplomacy and relations, feelings of national identity and pride are often projected onto victories and defeats of international representative sports. This leads to international sports fitting many of the criteria that causes and fuels violent and extremist nationalism. The violence and extremism that comes with the linking of manifestation of nationalism in sports can be mitigated by governments through anti-hooliganism legislation and the reframing of international sports as friendly instead of competitive projections of national ability, effectively decreasing both immediate violence and the long-term ties between nationalism and sports.


Works Cited

Arnold, Richard. “Sport and Official Nationalism in Modern Russia.” Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 65, no. 2, Mar. 2018, pp. 129–141. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10758216.2018.1425093.

Bertoli, Andrew D. “Nationalism and Conflict: Lessons from International Sports.” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 4, Dec. 2017, pp. 835–849. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/isq/sqx029.

Brentin, Dario, and Loïc Tregoures. “Entering Through the Sport’s Door? Kosovo’s Sport Diplomatic Endeavours Towards International Recognition.” Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 27, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 360–378. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09592296.2016.1169799.

Collins, Randall. “Time-Bubbles of Nationalism: Dynamics of Solidarity Ritual in Lived Time.” Nations & Nationalism, vol. 18, no. 3, July 2012, pp. 383–397. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1469-8129.2011.00530.x.

Morgan, William J. “Sports and the Making of National Identities: A Moral View.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. 1997, p. 1. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00948705.1997.9714536.

Omkar Joshi, and Jonathan Evans. “British Attitudes on National Identity and Religious Minorities Not Unique in EU.” Pew Research Center, 19 Feb. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/19/british-attitudes-on-national-identity-and-religious-minorities-not-unique-in-eu/.

Orwell, George. “The Sporting Spirit.” Essays, Penguin Classics, 2000.

Pew Research Centre. “End of Communism Cheered but Now with More Reservations: Chapter 7. Nationalism.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, 2 Nov. 2009, www.pewresearch.org/global/2009/11/02/chapter-7-nationalism/.

Pigman, Geoffrey Allen. “International Sport and Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Governments, Sporting Federations and the Global Audience.” Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 25, no. 1, Mar. 2014, pp. 94–114. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09592296.2014.873613.

Postlethwaite, Verity, and Jonathan Grix. “Beyond the Acronyms: Sport Diplomacy and the Classification of the International Olympic Committee.” Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 27, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 295–313. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09592296.2016.1169796.

Valentine, John. “Cultural Nationalism, Anti-Americanism, and the Federal Defense of the Canadian Football League.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 49, no. 3, Sept. 2019, pp. 376–393. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/02722011.2019.1660454.

Woods, Jackson S., and Bruce J. Dickson. “Victims and Patriots: Disaggregating Nationalism in Urban China.” Journal of Contemporary China, vol. 26, no. 104, Mar. 2017, pp. 167–182. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10670564.2016.1223100.

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