The virulent, the violent and the vociferous: the Top 10 most political sporting events of modern times
By Wolfgang Depner
When athletes from around the world descend upon London this summer for the XXX Olympiad — July 27 to August 12 — audiences will likely hear their fair share about the ideals of cross-cultural understanding and global peace through athletic competition, as envisioned by Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement. But such platitudes obscure a far more obscene truth. If war is politics by other means, sport may be war minus shooting, as George Orwell once noted. Fans of the Beautiful Game will appreciate this insight every four years when the World Cup rolls around.
Globalization might have weakened the virus of nationalism, but football (soccer, as we call it in Canada) gives it a vibrant, sometimes virulent if not violent, boost. Even if one disagrees with Orwell, athletic competitions are more than just bloodless contests of strength, speed and agility. They are revelatory, esthetic experiences, in the most general sense, that capture their surrounding context in all its complexities.
Consider the violence that erupted in Egypt after supporters of the al-Masry football team attacked fans of a rival Cairo team, al-Ahly, in Port Said in early February, leaving at least 73 dead. While some North American commentators could not resist framing this incident as yet another “soccer riot” demeaning the sport, this tragedy actually reflected much deeper political tensions within Egyptian society as it deals with the unfolding aftermath of the Arab Awakening. Sport, in this sense, projects the deeper attitudes and anxieties that permeate and percolate through society. Conscious of this condition, politicians of various ideological hues have used sports to advance their agenda. Particularly dictators have relied on it to direct, or more importantly, divert attention, as General Franco did in Spain for most of his rule.
With this in mind, this list compiles the top 10 sporting events that include a discernible political dimension. Criteria for selection include the context of the event, its immediate impact and its (potential) long-term consequences. Other criteria include geographical, cultural and athletic diversity. Granted, this list might be subjective and could easily read quite differently. And, as Ian Buruma, a latter-day Orwell reminds us, “most right-thinking people are a bit like de Coubertin. Tribal emotions are embarrassing, and dangerous when given free rein.” But they exist nonetheless and it is unlikely that they will ever go away.
1. Sino-American Ping-Pong Diplomacy
A little ball, when hit across a wooden table with paddles slightly larger than human palms, can make a big difference. Such was the case with ping-pong diplomacy, a series of exhibition matches in the early 1970s between the American and Chinese ping-pong teams that (pardon the pun) set the table for the normalization of relations between the United States and China. The chill of the Cold War had frozen diplomatic relations between the countries since 1949 when Mao Tse-tung had proclaimed the People’s Republic of China following his victory against Nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-shek, an American ally.
Feeling increasingly isolated in the late 1960s, Mao tried to sharpen his profile on the international stage by reaching out to Washington, where Republican Richard Nixon had won office in 1968. Nixon, whose political career began with baiting reds, also sought better relations with China. “We simply cannot afford to leave China outside the family of nations,” he said. The first opening occurred on March 21, 1971 during an informal meeting of American and Chinese ping-pong players at the world championships in Japan. Intrigued, Mao eventually invited the American team to China. As Jung Chang and Jon Halliday write in their splendid biography Mao: The Unknown Story, the well orchestrated, “dazzling” welcome for the American players had its desired effect.
The story of their visit “jumped off the sports pages and onto the front page,” creating the right climate for Nixon to visit China in 1972, with far-reaching consequences for both sides. While this commentary hardly captures the complexity of the American-Sino relationship before and after 1972, its history might have taken a different turn had it not been for ping-pong diplomacy, a perspective shared by participants, such as Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. “Never before in history,” he said “has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy.”
When West Germany hosted the 1972 Summer Olympics in the Bavarian capital of Munich, officials spared no effort to exorcise the memories of 1936. Munich, so the message went, would come to represent a new Germany, one conscious of its dark past, but comfortable, if not optimistic, about its future ahead. Several aspects of the Munich games accentuated this atmosphere of departure. For one, it was the first Olympiad in which West and East Germany fielded fully independent teams. While seemingly counterintuitive, this division reflected the West German Ostpolitik of seeking improvements for Germans on both sides of the Iron Curtain by tearing down encrusted political positions in recognizing East Germany.
The Munich games were also the first for many newly independent countries from the developing world. And yet, the long-term legacy of German fascism reared its head once more during the games, when the Palestinian terror group Black September took 11 members of the Israeli team hostage to press for the freedom of comrades. The situation — broadcast live no less — careened into a catastrophe when ill-equipped German security forces attempted to rescue the eight surviving hostages.
They, along with five of their abductors and one German police officer, died during a lengthy fire exchange that exposed countless deficiencies in security preparations. The incident cast a dark shadow upon the rest of the competition and reminded everyone, but particularly Germans, that the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reach back into their own country, if not Munich itself — the former residence and political training ground of a failed Viennese artist, Adolf Hitler.
3. 1936 Summer Olympics
The politics of race and racism loomed large whenever German and American athletes met following the rise of fascism in Germany. When the “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling during their 1938 rematch at Yankee Stadium, he did not just defeat another boxer who had beaten him earlier. He beat an “associate” of Adolf Hitler, an unfair affiliation, since Schmeling risked his own life to save two Jewish children. But if one accepts the proposition that Louis scored a technical victory against Hitler’s theory of Aryan supremacy, the knockout had happened two years earlier when another black athlete by the name of Jesse Owens, also from Louis’ segregated home state of Alabama, won four track and field gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
As one may imagine, the Nazis did not care much for the idealistic notions of Baron de Coubertin. But they quickly realized the propaganda potential of the event, which Germany had received during the dying days of the Weimar Republic. What followed was a grandiose spectacle whose sophisticated staging revolutionized the technical presentation and artistic dramaturgy of spectator sports. Easily recognized elements such as the torch relay and the use of lights had their beginnings in the Berlin of Nazi Germany, which itself turned in an illusory facade of state-enforced friendliness and racial tolerance. The international community was, of course, aware of the radical changes that had taken place in Germany since the Nazis had risen to power in 1933 and prominent — if not powerful — voices in the United States pushed unsuccessfully for a boycott to embarrass the regime in light of its race laws. Fittingly, it was a competitor deemed to be racially inferior who discredited Hitler’s theories in a remarkable performance whose memory has survived to this very day. When Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, the sight of Chinese soldiers goose-stepping their way through the opening ceremonies led faux conservative commentator Stephen Colbert to the conclusion that Owens was due to win another haul of medals. Behind the mirth and joking, though, lies the uncomfortable feeling that the games in Berlin were not the last time a dictatorship signaled the apparent arrival of a new order.
4. Football War: El Salvador vs Honduras, July 1969
The Football War between El Salvador and Honduras in July 1969 may have lasted only 100 hours, but it has since become one of the most prominent, if not permanent, reminders that the dividing line between politics and sports is indeed a blurry one. The root causes of the war between these two Central American neighbours reach back decades and reflect many of the issues that have riled the developing world: population pressures, foreign influence, poverty and inept military governance.
Two immutable conditions contributed to this conflict. Whereas El Salvador possessed twice the population of Honduras in the late 1960s, Honduras is five times as large as its neighbour. This made Honduras an attractive destination for Salvadorans, struggling to subsist in their homeland. While scholars continue to debate whether the Football War is a preview of things to come as the human population continues to grow in the face of finite resources, the large presence of Salvadoran immigrants in Honduras certainly did not sit well with wealthy landowners in Honduras, including the United Fruit Company. Their political pressure on the military leadership of Honduras eventually led to nationalistic excesses against Salvadorans living in Honduras, a development that deepened historic tensions over a long-running border dispute. They escalated after El Salvador had beaten Honduras on June 26, 1969 to qualify for the 1970 World Cup in overtime during the third and final game of a playoff series that had already featured several deadly clashes between fans of both countries.
Less than a month after the game, El Salvador launched an attack on Honduras to seek protection for its citizens living across the border. The short-but-sharp war that followed killed 6,000, injured twice as many and displaced some 50,000 people, according to the late Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński. His famed account of the incident in The Soccer War and the aftermath remains as terrifyingly compelling and complex as the war itself.
5. 1986 World Cup Quarterfinal: Argentina vs England, June 22, 1986
The football rivalry between England and Argentina ranks among the oldest and fiercest in the world. But none of the matches played before and since this unforgettable quarterfinal has come close to matching its politically charged atmosphere off the pitch and the spectacular events on it. Played almost exactly four years after expeditionary forces of the United Kingdom had re-taken the Falklands Islands from Argentina, its Selección sought to secure a small but symbolic measure of revenge for the humiliating defeat their country had suffered.
Granted, the footballers and fans on both sides had plenty of other reasons to feel passionate, even resentful, towards one another. As sports author John Carlin has noted, the ambiguous rivalry that defines these two nations runs deep. It dates back to the late 19th Century, when British entrepreneurs and engineers exported the Beautiful Game around the world, including Argentina, where they found an eager audience, whose skills and successes would eventually surpass those of their foreign tutors. England is still waiting to win its second World Cup, whereas Argentina will be aiming for its third title in 2016. But this history has hardly stopped the English from feeling smug about their alleged superiority, if not on the pitch, but on the grand parquet of international affairs, a long-forgotten feeling which the Falklands War seemingly confirmed.
Thus both distant and recent history loomed in the background as the teams met on that memorable day in June in front of almost 115,000 fans and a global television audience. The sweltering afternoon heat and humidity of Mexico City had turned its famed Estadio Azteca into a smoldering cauldron of rather sluggish play that did not cease until the 51st minute when Diego Maradona, standing 5-feet-5 inches, used his left hand to punch an errant ball past the 6-foot-1-inch English goalie Peter Shilton to give Argentina the lead.
Unnoticed by the Tunisian referee, this illegal goal has since entered Argentinean lore and English infamy as the Hand of God goal, a diabolic phrase by any measure. Six minutes later, Maradona did score a truly divine goal, this time with his feet after he had dribbled some 60 metres across the field, weaving past half of the English team, including Shilton. Gary Lineker’s goal with 10 minutes left in regulation was not enough to turn the tide as Argentina advanced to the semi-finals on its way to winning the World Cup 3-2 against West Germany.
But this illustrious victory in the final paled against what had happened earlier, as former Argentina captain Roberto Perfumo told Carlin. “In 1986, winning that game against England was enough. Winning the World Cup that year was secondary for us. Beating England was our real aim.”
6. Lake Placid Winter Olympics Hockey Semi Final: USSR vs U.S., Feb. 22, 1980
“Do you believe in miracles? Yes! Unbelievable.” Hockey fans will immediately recognize this line as the concluding crescendo to one of the greatest upsets in sports history, the Miracle on Ice. Few, if anyone, gave the United States a ghost of a chance to defeat the Soviet Union. A collection of college players and genuine amateurs, the Americans faced one of the most formidable, if not feared, collective of hockey players ever assembled.
Playing a creative, free-flowing style that destroyed every stereotype that western observers might have had about the regimented USSR, the Soviets had entered the tournament as the prohibitive team to beat in seeking their sixth title in seven Olympics. Whereas the Soviets had, for the most part, breezed their way through preliminary play, the Americans under coach Herb Brooke surprised many when they joined the Soviets in the semi-finals, winning more with brawn than with brain. But this contest was, of course, far more than just a clash of playing cultures. It was the Cold War, come to life, in the crowded confines of a hockey rink in Lake Placid, where more than 8,500 fans watched the scrappy Americans score two third-period goals to win 4-3.
Stunningly, most Americans did not watch the game live, unless they lived along the Canadian border. A long time ago, in a media galaxy far, far away from the instant universe of Twitter, the game aired on ABC some five hours after Al Michaels’ famous call. Notwithstanding such delays, the geo-political context could not have been more apparent. Nightly broadcasts before, during and after the Olympics reminded American audiences daily that Iranian revolutionary forces were holding 52 of their fellow citizens hostage. And when the two teams skated on the ice, Soviet troops had been in Afghanistan for almost two months, a development that would eventually inspire the United States to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow.
7. The Super Bowl
Almost 40 years ago, scholar Michael Real published an academic paper in which he probed the cultural significance of Super Bowl VIII. He defined American football as “an aggressive, strictly regulated team game fought between males who use both violence and technology to win monopoly control of property for the economic gain of individuals within a nationalistic, entertainment context.” Real concluded the game projected the “sexual, racial and organizational priorities” of American culture during the Cold War. Much has changed geopolitically since this conclusion, but its essence remains as cogent as it was in 1975. The Super Bowl is more than just a title game to decide the champion of the National Football League (NFL), the richest sports league in the world with $9 billion in annual revenues.
The game, if not the sport itself, is a canvas of American attitudes. Arguably no recent era has confirmed this critical explanation more clearly than the post 9-11 period when NFL games, including its hyperbolic title games, routinely feature touching, but ultimately uncritical tributes to American armed forces serving abroad. This unapologetic instrumentalization merely amplified the militaristic overtones of the sport itself and reached a tragic apogee when the George W. Bush administration continued its pattern of deception by lying about the 2004 battlefield death of Pat Tillman, a star NFL player who forewent fame and fortune to join the U.S. Rangers with his brother after 9/11.
Initial reports framed Tillman’s death in Afghanistan in a heroic light, a narrative that did not hold up against the facts. An investigation eventually identified friendly fire as cause of death. Subsequent reports claim that Tillman might have been deliberately murdered. While it is rather difficult to confirm such claims, journalists such as Jon Krakauer (Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman) and David Zirin of the Nation have kept this story alive, likely to the chagrin of the NFL. Its commemoration of 9/11 on its 10th anniversary featured the usual patriotic pronouncements, but remained silent about Tillman, who had become a critic of U.S. policy in Iraq before his death.
8. Cricket Diplomacy
Average sports fans in North America and Europe might be rather puzzled, if not perplexed, should they ever encounter terms such as wicket, bowler and over. Not so in many Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, Africa and Southeast Asia, where cricket is even more popular than the world’s most popular sport, football (soccer). While cricket shares little in common with soccer, it too has become a metaphorical vessel for the ambitions and anxieties of entire nations.
Nowhere is this dynamic more divisive, if not decidedly dangerous for the rest of the globe, than on the Indian sub-continent, where the most passionate practitioners of the sport — India and Pakistan — also happen to be regional rivals, each bearing an arsenal of religious, economic and political grievances towards the other, each possessing a stockpile of nuclear weapons. But if cricket matches between India and Pakistan approximate the dark tensions that have long defined these two nations, they may also brighten the mood, as it happened during the 2011 World Cup, when the prime ministers of both countries watched together the semi-final match between their respective countries.
India, for the record, won the game and the world title. China, another emerging global player, has also recognized the importance of cricket by funding the sport in the Caribbean to undermine Taiwan. If recent geo-political trend lines continue, sporting fans unfamiliar with beamers and stumps might do well to learn a new vocabulary.
9. 1972 Summit Series: USSR-Canada
Designed to deepen the Detente of the early 1970s, this series of eight exhibition games between the former Soviet Union and Canada quickly descended into a clash of hockey cultures and ideological systems. While these two hockey superpowers had met on the ice before, most notably in 1955 when an amateur team from Penticton, B.C. claimed the world championships on behalf of Canada by beating the USSR in West Germany, this Summit Series ushered in a new era in international hockey. For one, technological advancements in broadcasting made the games available to far larger audiences, thereby raising the emotional stakes.
Both countries also sent their best players over the boards in justifying the title of what was otherwise a manufactured contest. A sense of casualness definitely ran through the ranks of the National Hockey League professionals who represented Canada, at least during the first half of the tournament played in Canada. Tipped to beat the USSR with relative ease, Canada dropped the opening 7-3 in losing two out of four home games. Humiliated and booed by their own fans, the Canadians recovered their form as the series resumed in Russia, winning two out of three games heading into the eighth and deciding match. (An earlier tie gave each country three wins and three losses.)
Needing a win to overcome a better Russian goal differential, Canada scored twice in third period to tie the game at five. With 34 seconds left, Paul Henderson achieved hockey immortality by scoring the winning goal after being left alone in front of the Russian net. This dramatic conclusion to what had been a nasty, even brutish affair on and off the ice immediately achieved mythical status. To this day, Canadians of a certain age will likely know exactly where they were when they heard legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt announce the winning goal.
10. 1995 Rugby World Cup
The first major sporting event to be staged in South Africa following apartheid, this competition confirmed the return of the country to the community of nations. While South Africa had retained membership in some international sporting bodies during the apartheid era, including the International Rugby Board, its segregationist policies eventually led to the country’s exclusion from FIFA, the world governing body of football, and the International Olympic Committee.
Granted, this international banishment did not affect all South African athletes. (White) South Africans competing in individual sports continued to have careers. But the message behind the banishment was clear. The international community would deny South Africa the prestige of participating in the world’s most influential sporting events. While the actual effects of such sanctions remain debatable, their lifting restored the country’s national pride. But this form of international restoration would be meaningless had domestic reconciliation not accompanied it.
Nelson Mandela — who had every reason to disdain, even mock the symbols of his former white jailers — wore the jersey of the Springboks, South Africa’s rugby team, when it upset the highly favoured All Blacks of New Zealand in the tournament final. Yes, this event followed by the 2010 World Cup did not fix the many social problems that continue to plague South Africa after the end of apartheid. At the very least, they offer a measure of temporary comfort and a chance for collective solidarity.
Wolfgang Depner’s most recent publication, Readings in Political Ideologies since the Rise of Modern Science, co-edited by Dr. Barrie McCullough, is scheduled for release by Oxford University Press Canada in 2013.