• Feb2022 26 17:00 - 18:30

    Not just a Game! Sports and Politics Round Table

    Room 122, IEB

On 16 February, the School of International Studies at FHSS hosted a roundtable event entitled “Not Just a Game! Sports and Politics Roundtable”. Professor Gary Rawnsley as Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences moderated the discussion. The panelists of the discussion included Dr. Grant Dawson, Dr. Tracy Fallon and Dr. Christian Mueller from the School of International Studies, Dr. Celia Lam and Dr. Paul Martin from the School of International Communications, and Sarah Humphreys, the Director of Sport and Physical Education. The speakers are all experts in their fields, and this event attracted a large number of students and staff from FHSS and other Faculties to participate and engage with the panel and the topic. Due to the ongoing COVID situation, an online link also enabled students not on campus to participate in the event.

Prof. Gary Rawnsley started the discussion by asking all the panelists whether “sports and politics mix”? The opinions of the panel varied on this topic.

Sarah Humphreys mentioned that from the athletes’ perspective, they generally do not wish for too close a connection between sports and politics, as sports is sometimes turned into political statements that can trigger a wide range of emotions. But on the other hand, both fields mix at times. Sarah added that,when governments come into connection with sports, the attention and funding can push sport to better develop in the fields of grassroot exercise, education, and professional competitions.

On this note, Dr. Christian Mueller pointed out that, especially in the modernage, sports and politics are inseparable. Politics is always eager to add meaning to the victory of national sport heroes as an element of status diplomacy. In turn, sports, as a game that follows rules, can civilise competition within societies and among states and render it peaceful. Examples of the idea of peaceful strive to elevate the respective nation are the development of international sport committees and associations in the past century as part of a cultural internationalism that promoted friendly competition among nations.

Dr. Tracy Fallon mentioned that sports and politics are coexistent. Sports can trigger a sense of belonging and agreement in a certain group, as people sometimes have strong emotions about sports. Dr. Celia Lam added that in the age of media and communication, the way that people think about and discuss sports is already in essence political.

Dr. Paul Martin remarked that the claim that “sports and politics do not mix” is in itself a political statement. A clear separation of sports and politics can help politics make use of sports as it is claimed non-political. Governments can utilise it as a means of nation-building and propaganda. However, it is perhaps also the belief that sports is outside of politics that gives the former the ability to influence so many emotions and create cohesion within societies.

The connection between politics and sports can also be a question of when and where. As is pointed out by Dr. Grant Dawson, sports, when necessary, can be a form of political struggle. Especially in the times when we are affected by COVID, winning and successfully holding the Olympics can become a display of national power.

Moving on to the topic of the signaling and symbolic effects of sport, Grant explained that these effects are certainly crucial. Governments can push certain sports to become symbolic of a political struggle. Dr. Tracy Fallon suggested that, on top of symbolism, sport also plays a huge part in community building and emotion responses. People come together through sports and create their own specific allegiances to clubs or national athletes. Furthermore, Dr. Christian Mueller highlighted that sports, as a game of rules, also offers a normative glue that can stabilise civil behavior within society.

Dr. Paul Martin also pointed out that for nations, sports can go further than just nation building, and can act as a way to encourage citizens to exercise, for example. In contrasting traditional sports with e-sports, Paul highlighted the potential of e-sports for governments to display an image of possessing cutting-edge technology. E-sports used to learn from sports proper, but during COVID, e-sports can help maintain a sense of imagined community when other sporting events are at times forced to be put on hold. However, the panel was divided on the question in how far sports as physical exercise and e-sports would address the same concerns in serving educational aims to activate society in similar ways.

In the final section of the roundtable meeting, students actively participatedin the discussion, commented on the presented views, and asked questions. The audience was enthusiastic about the diverse topics covered in the debate and the questions tackled a wide range of topics including cheating and doping in sports, minority group representations and political messaging in sport events among others. The discussions and comments around the student questions made the debate even more vivid, provided a wide range of reflections on the nature of sprots and its potential for politicization, and expanded the debate considerably.

This one-and-a-half-hour roundtable discussion ended with a vibrant exchange between tutors and students. This meeting examined sports from the perspectives of different fields of research through reviewing its history and cultural construction, its effects on society, community and nation-building, its connections with thepresent Winter Olympic Games and its potential for future developments in the connection of sport and politics. The speakers delved deeper into the topic of sport as a way to connect it to current affairs, engaging the audience along the way.

This also poses a final question: how do we understand what academics do and how their research relates to broader social questions? Do academics only research for expanding knowledge, or do they contribute to the understanding of society, of international relations, and build a shared future? As academics, while creating knowledge is important, the reflection and application of knowledge in our current social context has equal value. It is best said in the words of the Chinese philosopher Shouren Wang: seek unity of thought and action.