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Similarities Between Sports And War

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Published: Mon, 01 May 2017

The Collins English dictionary provides us with some attention-grabbing definitions of Sport. It is defined as a) “an activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively” and b) “an active pastime; recreation”. Sport is derived form the Latin word “portare” which means to “amuse” or “entertain oneself”. Initially in England, the birthplace of most of modern day sports, only people with substantially enough money and leisure time used to “amuse themselves”. In fact, sport remained as a “prerogative of the nobility and gentry” [1] still these events were quite capable of attracting immense crowds. Interestingly, the most violent “combative sports, football and boxing” enjoys the most widespread outreach. [2] In the pre-modern world Sports played a slightly different role then what it does today and it was played for the attainment of an utterly different goal. In that era people played games mostly to please their deities so that they could remain blessed with fertilized lands, could get ample amount of rain in order to be able to survive and for irrigation, are able to lead a protracted life, oust demons, and alleviate sickness. Athletic competitions and other types of public spectacle was a feature of the religious and social life of ancient Greece and Rome. In Greece the games, initially, served as a component of various religious observances, as said earlier, some were held in honor of the gods, some as offerings of thanksgiving. Others, in later times, were held in honor of living persons. The Greek games complimented with processions, feasts, and music played an important role in development of appreciation of physical beauty which is typical traits of Greek art, literature and architecture. Until a relatively later period in Greek history, the participants in the games were drawn from among the citizens rather than from among professional athletes. As the games took on an increasingly professional character, they acutely declined in public esteem. Interestingly the people of ancient Greece celebrated sports over the years. They had a set of four separate sports festival namely, the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games, the Isthmian Games, and the Nemean Games, and were collectively called as the Panhellenic Games. The Roman games, like those of the Greeks, were partly religious in nature. In order to ensure the blessing and favor of the gods continue to shower upon the Rome, the consuls of Rome at the beginning of every roman year were required to hold games dedicated to the gods. Funds for these spectacles were at first granted by the public treasury. Later, the elite begun to exploit opportunities through these games to win the favor of the populace and vied with one another in the lushness and extravagance of the games and thus ended up losing all of their original religious meaning and purpose.

From a kind of ritual performed to please the gods, sport has undergone many paradigm shifts, periodically changing the character and the purpose of its existence. Of them all, the most interesting one is the “deep and on occasion dark” [3] association between War and Sports. Interesting because there exist a great deal of scholarship that believe that sports “creates goodwill between the nations”, and that if endowed with an opportunity the population of the world would love to “meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield”. [4] Going by this choice of the peoples around the world as well, it would not be an exaggeration to say that sport is perceived as en extension to war, as an alternative to war. And what else could replace something as violent as war but an equally “legitimate form of interpersonal violence” [5] the sport provides us with. This is so rightly argued by Mangan elsewhere:

Heroes of sportsfield and battlefield have much in common. They are both viewed as symbols of national prowess, quality and virtue. The warrior and the athlete are crucial to the perceived success of the state. The sportsfield and battlefield are linked as locations for the demonstration of legitimate patriotic aggression. The one location sustains the other and both sustain the image of the powerful nation. Furthermore, the sportsfield throughout history has prepared the young for the battlefield. Throughout history sport and militarism have been inseparable [6] 

Many a times, the phenomenon called sports has been an endeavored “antidote to war” demonstrating “legitimate patriotic aggression”. This, precisely, may be the reason why the sports involving immense violence, Boxing, Wrestling, Football etc, are enormously popular. This brings us to the conclusion that both war and sport are persuasive force that creates and shapes “imagined communities” [7] and has all the ability to unite the inhabitants of these imagined communities in sheer ecstasy and misery, pleasure and pain, win and loss, felicity and infelicity. Looking at the past one could say that sport and war have been complimentary to each other, especially in the context of Europe, for both involve colossal physical and psychological warfare. These are two identical fields in which the bodies, selves, emotions and psyches are all involved at the same time. There is such evident overlap between sports and war that it cannot go unnoticed. It seems that the nations understood the importance of physical power much before Darwin in Origin of the Species professed the thought that a nation’s validity depends on its physical characteristic and that this characteristic could be well evolve through (rigorous) training or breeding. Why else would have the Great Ashoka retained his simply gigantic military force even after denouncing war?

War is phenomenon which is essentially coupled with destruction, devastation and sorrow and there exist no exception. It is often considered evil and gloomy, too. On the contrary, sport is usually perceived as something that builds a character and that it keeps one healthy and is a grand source of positive energies. However, the phenomenon called sports is no less evil than war. Hobbes believed that as a desire to serve one’s own needs the human beings live in a “state of war” for three main reason; competition, diffidence and glory. All these three ideas are just too intrinsic to sports. Sports are all about contests and competition, as well as a sphere to test one’s abilities. Professional sports are all about competing against the established best of one’s kind. Even at the non-professional level it involves immense competition. Nobody wants to be a loser in whatever game(s) one is active, not even one single kid playing in a neighboring park or even in an ally. This zest of winning often translates into a rivalry; this rivalry further gets translated in nothing less than a war where every individual (or a team) acts as a sovereign entity. This war would not end till there emerges a winner or hegemony in the respective sports at the respective levels is established. Some might argue that in sports, unlike wars, the win is established without hurting anyone. If this had been the case then why would we have to encounter the word traditional rivals? Why would there be news about someone or some team avenging the previous defeat. If winning pleases or brings glory to one then losing will, for sure, offend or disgrace the other. If it’s not always about winning or losing as some argue, then why don’t we end any match as soon as we reach a draw or as soon as the points are equaled. The desperation or rather the politics of winning is so high that even the Goalkeeper, finally, would kick a goal in an event of tie. All the point games end at odd points, making one winner and the other loser. Recently, in the game of cricket, though only in newly invented shortest version, the idea of Super Over and Bowl Out is adopted to avoid a draw. Winning is often associated with gaining fame, and lately enormous money as well. Starting from the individual level, to the regional, national and international level, it’s the same story; no one is ready to lose this war. And at the international level, between the nations, this war without weapons [8] , as Philip Goodhardt and Chris Chataway have termed it, takes the cruelest form. What purpose does the various Record Books and the Medal Tallies [9] solve but the fact that which nation was stronger in the various eras.

If we look at the notion of Gender with respect to performance then without a doubt the institution of sports, like the institution of military, would be a gender biased institution. Sport, as a dominant male ideology, has existed ever since the very inception of sports but it was in the 19th century Victorian England public schools that this idea became prominent. (Mangan, 1981). Ian Wellard argues:

In mainstream sport, a version of masculinity based on a particular kind of bodily performance continues to prevail. This operates not only in organized sport but also within sports groups initially established as alternatives to mainstream (predominantly heterosexual male) practices, for example those involving gay men and women, heterosexual women and disabled people, or aimed at children and young people in the context of physical literacy. As such, contemporary sporting practice produces and promotes an environment where displays of traditional masculinity, those which present competitiveness, aggressiveness and toughness, are seen as normal and necessary. It is the perceived understanding of a traditional, ‘natural’ version of masculinity which dominates sport and continues to hold immense power. [10] 

Traditionally, any and every military forces constituted of men. The idea of physical strength, often interpreted as an essentially masculine characteristic, stays at the core of any military institution. Till recent this has been prevalent idea, to some extent it still remains one. On the other hand, talking about sports, what else could be a better place to demonstrate one’s masculinity but a sporting arena? For a better understanding of the argument it would be worth quoting Messner. He argues how the game of football constructs the idea of masculinity, he says:

Football, based as it is on the most extreme possibilities of the male body…is clearly a world apart from women, who are relegated to the role of cheerleaders/sex objects on the sidelines… in contrast to the bare and vulnerable bodies of the cheerleaders, the armored bodies of the football players are elevated to mythical status and as such, give testimony to the undeniable ‘fact’ that here is at least one place where men are clearly superior to women. [11] 

Sports does not necessarily always end up asserting the male identity as superior to that of female, it also provides a platform where the identity of masculinity is created as well as negotiated. To this Victoria Robinson argues:

Sports also offers a very specific a very specific context for the interrogation of gender identities because of its public location, in that sporting activities take place largely outside the private sphere of the home. It also carries particular meanings in relation to masculinity. These concern competition, experience of the body and body practices, discipline and care of the self, all of which accompany most sporting endeavors and have, in some instances become synonymous with hegemonic masculinity; for example, its association with aggressive competition, physical size and strength, and with particular forms of courage and risk-taking. [12] 

Playing team games such as football, rugby, basketball, cricket etc. are essentially considered to be male games. The military across the world have been very hesitant in recruiting women soldiers, as the battlefield is primarily seen as a male territory. In the case of India, women soldiers have been recruited since some time now. But still seldom they get a chance to join their male counterparts in a battlefield. Leave alone fighting for the nation in a war, they are not even considered for the permanent commission. It was only recently that the military establishment agreed to grant the women a permanent commission on the condition that they could only be put at military civil works. This shows what importance the mankind has invested in the womankind. The dominance of men is also very evident in the area of sports. This is the reason why the Men’s Finals of every Grand Slam title is the last event of the tournament and is organized on the Sundays.

With the adaptation of the United Nations Charter the idea of sovereignty, which was first coined through the Treaty of Westphalia, got well cemented. This charter prevented the nation-states from waging wars upon other sovereign states. Now that a direct confrontation was least of an option the nation-states indulged into exploring different areas/ideas through they could confront a rival nation-state or otherwise. The ideological war carried throughout the later half of the previous century could be termed as the most infectious of them all. But this was remained extremely volatile and it could have translated into full scale war, at least at a few instances. Nevertheless, sports proved another alternate mean through the nation-states could prove their supremacy, rather a much safer and efficient one. It is in this light that the international sporting events such as Olympic Games are compared to World Wars. What nations after the adoption of the UN charter were unable to do, they were doing it in the fields of sports, translating every international match into a war. Sport has all the potential to gain all kinds of dividends a nation aspires for, minus the bloodshed and huge expenses going to a war would cost.

China

China, once called as “the celestial empire”, had a huge blow on its historic face with the major loss in the hands of its neighbor, Japan, in the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95. This war between the two “unequal” neighbors caused China great humiliation. Since then it was called “the sick-man”. This humiliation caused many Chinese to look for some medicines that could cure this sickness. Yan, who first used this term for China, was of the opinion that in order to become strong again, china needs “improve their physical shape, intelligence, and moral values”. [13] A greater emphasis was paid on physical well being. In order to achieve one China looked towards the west, thus adopted more of western sport to build a sound physique. Xu Guoqi puts the debate among different scholars of that time together;

Xu Yixiong; the adoption of modern sports in late imperial China was fueled by the idea of saving the Chinese race and self-strengthening.

Zhang Zhidong; in his influential article “Quan xue pian” (Exhortation to learning), argues, that physical training and China’s national survival were closely linked… …to make the nation strong the Chinese must rely on wu gong, or Western-style exercise and military training.

Liang Qichao, an important reformer and writer, wrote in his 1902 article “Xin min shuo” (On new citizenship) that “to be civilized, citizens need a warlike spirit that serves as the essence of a nation. Without this warlike spirit, a nation cannot stand” and that this animus was the key factor behind the power and strength of the Western powers and Japan, adding further he said, that China had lost this spirit a long time ago; it had become a country of “sick people and as a result a sick nation.” [14] 

This shame caused by the loss in the hands of such a small nation revolutionized the nation. People in enormous digits began to protest against the long followed and well cherished tradition of ‘foot binding’. The liberation of Chinese women, as Xu argues, begun with this process of national salvation. He further tells us that “by the early twentieth century Chinese women began to unbind their feet or stopped binding those of their daughters, and left the inner chambers to seek an education and even to exercise.” [15] 

With this phenomenon of radically revolutionizing the physique of China, an interesting event was happening around the globe. It was the rise of Olympic Movement and beginning of the modern Olympic Games. Chinese elites gained much support from this new emerging idea of modern Olympics. Again quoting Xu;

For Chinese elites, who were looking for direction for their nation, modern sports and the Olympics with their mix of nationalism and internationalization seemed a possible solution to their problems. The Olympic Games, as John Lucas wrote, “are both a vision and a search for the extraordinary.” This kind of vision was precisely what the Chinese were after. We do not know exactly when the Chinese heard about the revival of the Olympic movement and the first modern Games, but one thing is clear: the Olympic call to be “faster, higher, stronger,” and to participate in the world as an equal, matched the ideals that motivated the Chinese most at that time. After all-theoretically-the new Olympics and other international sports events provided the proverbial level playing field where every nation, large or small, could take part and be judged by the same rules and standards. As one scholar has noted, “The first laws ever to be voluntarily embraced by men from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds are the laws of sport.”49 The Chinese not only wanted to compete in sports, but also-and more importantly-saw the modern Olympic movement as coinciding with their broader plans for national renewal.

The aspiration of achieving shangwu or “fighting spirit” and the process of militarization went hand in hand. The sports in China were “more than amusement or play; they were considered vital to the future of the nation and its position in the world”. [16] The Chinese also believed that they “needed to be prepared to defend themselves from foreign invasions if the country were to recover its lost glory. To train the nation’s youth for war, the state needed to encourage sports.” [17] 

America, too, post the Spanish-American War embraced “sport and athletics as the most efficient means to cultivate national vitality, citizenship, and the martial spirit, and to restore social order and patriotism” and the Japanese, too, “adopted a paramilitary version of physical education in the schools in the 1910s.” [18] Going by all these examples it could be argued that the culture of sports has at one point or the other has acted as a rather successful bridge between the individuals and military, enabling them to adapt to the military like situations quite swiftly.

“Politics is war carried out without bloodshed, while war is politics carried out with bloodshed” is what Mao once proclaimed. Another line was added by Mahim Pratap recently to this quote of Mao. He says, “it becomes tempting to extend Chairman Mao’s argument and add this line to his statement: Sport, however, is both war and politics carried out without bloodshed.” [19] He further maintains that the international sports growingly has become a “living metaphor of international rivalry” [20] , but it’s not always true that sports does only creates divides neither it has always proved to be an opportunity for nations to settle scores. There exist a few exceptions. One of them is the Balkan Games.

During the early 1920s for the first time the issue of having a separate game for the Balkan states was addressed. The idea was to have a competition among equals, i.e. the Balkans against the Balkans and not the Europeans, who were perceived to be somewhat superior because of various reasons including the entire process of European modernization. Through these competitions, as believed, the performances of the Balkan athletes would improve, thus, equipping these athletes with the ability to pose harsh challenges to the Europeans. The idea was well appreciated and accepted in the conflict ridden Balkan states. It was also hoped that establishing such an institution that would be responsible to organize these games would help improve the condition in the region, as the interaction among the inhabitants would enhance and peace would be restored in the peninsula. “After a long period of wars, lesser military operations, territorial claims and financial disputes, the establishment of athletic meetings in the Balkans, it was hoped, might bring the Balkan countries into peaceful contact with each other, a step towards greater regional understanding in order to avoid war.” [21] Although the idea was well approved by most of the parties, the talks begin to seem going nowhere as soon as the matter of finance entered into the scene. “A large outlay was required to fund the organization, an onerous burden for each of the states. Furthermore, the Balkan representatives were not able to agree promises and obligations without the approval of their governments. In point of fact, finance and approval proved to be obstacles to the creation of a Balkan Games and the establishment of athletic relations seemed bound to fail.” [22] An enthusiastic Greek came to the rescue. It suggested that there should be a trial Balkaniad, on the format of Olympiads, be held in Athens under the guidance of Hellenic Amateur Athletic Association and this organization will be responsible for the expenses incurred. The Greek efforts soon showed good signs of success.

The Hellenic Amateur Athletic Association set the dates of the games and began a hectic period of preparation and deliberation, overcoming various difficulties and misgivings. Invitations were sent to the Bulgarian and Albanian athletic associations, which were not represented at the Amsterdam meeting. Beyond all expectations, all Balkan states except Albania accepted the invitation… …the magnitude of this Greek achievement should be stressed. It was accomplished despite inevitable national differences, power-struggles, confrontations and clashes. [23] 

These Games proved to be a boon for to the population of the Balkan peninsula in such contagious hostile situation. To the success of these games Penelope Kissoudi says, “to achieve Balkan consensus for any idea was an achievement of rare accomplishment. Agreement clearly revealed the extent of the desire for regional rapprochement after what appeared to many to have been an interminable period of regional dissension. It may well be that using sport as an agent of political reconciliation was grasping at straws, but the fact remains that those involved were keen to make the attempt and considered that, within the bounds of possibility, some political good might come out of an astonishing initiative.” [24] In a state of adverse negativity around the corner because of the ongoing political uncertainty and enormous lack of capital to support the games, the dedication and necessity to create a friendly environment in the region led to the creation of the Balkan Games in 1928. These games were unfortunately had to be suspended for some thirteen years only to be resumed in 1953. since then the Balkan Games have been a very cherished annual athletic meeting that has brought the nations of the Balkan peninsula together.

Conclusion

The history of the human civilization endows us with innumerable examples where sport has been used as a political tool. The entire intention of a state to promote any sport or sports, as it has been a common practice in the communist states, to enhance fitness which would add up to the national strength and to serve military purposes. International sports mimes war in no lesser way. Riding high on the ideology of nationalism international sporting events has all the potential to arouse, what Orwell has said, savage combative instincts”. The nation-states do not let slip any chance to flex muscles and settle scores, neither have they ever. The Olympic Games have time and again proved to be the best of all the opportunities sport could provide. To conclude I could do no better than quoting Andrew Strenk; “for all the heightened tension, conflicts, solicitations of asylum, propagandizing and protests that occur, the Olympics and other international sports event are still valuable in that they offer a symbolic arena and alternate channel for international competition”, a channel that is war in every possible sense but minus the bloodshed.


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