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Sports, Identity, and International Politics

There is a longstanding relationship between sports and international politics.  Over at The Vreelander, my friend and colleague James Raymond Vreeland offers a fascinating suggestion about how sports could help build international solidarity. He writes:

Saw Invictus. It inspired me.

It’s the story of how President Nelson Mandela risked political capital by supporting South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks, which had been a symbol of the apartheid era. Mandela believed that by embracing the team, he could change what the team represented – making it a symbol of a new, united South Africa. He believed that he could help forge a new South African identity – one united behind its sports team as it competed for the World Cup.

In the movie, Mandela receives political advice not to gamble the future of his administration over something as trivial as rugby. Instead, he should be worried about “housing, food, jobs, crime, [the national] currency.” But Mandela argues that none of these problems can be addressed without first establishing a new national identity, one that unites people of all backgrounds. This is a tall task.

While dramatizing and exaggerating, the film reflects a political reality. South Africa still has racial problems to deal with, but Mandela left his nation more united than when his administration began. Surely, a lot of his success came from specific policies that impacted housing, jobs, crime, and the value of the national currency. But I can’t help think that forging a new national identity was also an important ingredient. And perhaps uniting behind a sports team is an effective way to foment an identity.

A personal anecdote: I grew up hating the Lakers. So, when Kobe Bryant joined the team in 1996, I hated him too… for 12 years. And then came The Redeem Team. Spain was nipping at *our* heals in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Basketball Final. Then Kobe drilled a 3-pointer with about 3 minutes to go, and he silenced the pro-Spain (and anti-American) crowd, shushing them with a finger to his lips (to see it, go to 7:12 in this clip). In that moment, I felt unadulterated enthusiasm for this guy and happily cheered for him. There was no hesitation. Afterwards, it hit me that I had cheered for a Laker – I could only chuckle, thinking, it’s a hell of a lot better when Kobe’s with you than against you! I’ll never forget that victory, and, you know, I don’t hate Kobe any more, or the Laker team that he represents. Don’t get me wrong – I still don’t like the Lakers – I’ll always route against them. But hate them? It’s hard to really hate a team led by a guy that brought me that moment of victory. Kobe might be Laker, but he’s also Team USA.

So this brings me to thinking about a multi-polar world.

Regions around the world are slowly uniting. Europe is the most advanced: goods flow freely, most countries have the euro, and immigration is unchecked across borders. Europeans started down this path seeking peace. They also achieved economies of scale: the European Union is the largest market in the world.

When the economy isn’t doing well, many want to retreat from regional integration. This is true across the globe. Yet, these retreats do not appear to derail the forces of regionalization. When the economy picks up again, trade ensues, and regional ties deepen anew.

The political problems are, however, severe, and the forces of regionalization are often impeded by them. Take North America, for example. If the United States is going to compete in a regionalized multi-polar world, we need Mexico. With a nearly trillion dollar economy and over 100 million people, cooperation with Mexico could be a real boon. But problems of poverty must be addressed, and with our 3,000-plus kilometer border, issues over there will inevitably become issues over here.

Yet, while our neighbor is engulfed in out-of-control narco-violence (which is linked to US consumption of illegal drugs), we foolishly talk of building walls and shipping millions of immigrants back across the border. We see Mexicans as “the other.” There is a failure to recognize that the destiny of the United States of America is intrinsically linked to that of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

In my research, I consider political and economic issues that have impacts across borders on things like housing, food, jobs, crime, the national currency… But when I saw Invictus, it made me wonder. Maybe – to address these problems – we first need a new identity. Economic integration appears to be an irresistible force, but the political problems might be easier to address if people perceive themselves to be part of a region and not just part of a country. Maybe we need to imagine regional identities. And maybe sports competition can help.

So I propose Regional Games. And I’m not talking about intra-regional games, where countries of the same region play each other. No, we’ve had plenty of that. I’m talking inter-regional games, where North America plays South America, plays Asia, plays Europe, Africa, the Middle East.

Imagine people in El Paso and Juarez cheering for Ortiz as he hits a home-run in the bottom of the 9th to bring Team North America to victory. Or folks in São Paulo cheering for Ginóbili when he hits a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to win the game for Team South America. Or how about this? As an attacking midfielder for Team Middle East scores an overtime goal, people from Cairo to Riyadh to Tehran cheer for their beloved Benayoun.

Crazy? Yep, that’s just what they thought of Mandela’s idea that blacks and whites could unite behind the Springboks.

Constructivism at work! Sounds like a good idea to me.

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One Comment

  • Chaz P. says:

    My one concern with the idea is that some regions will be grossly overrepresented by countries with large populations (China, Germany, USA, Brazil) that the smaller countries would be disenfranchised (Caribbean nations other than Jamaica in track and Dominican Republic in Baseball), a reverse of the current trend of giving regional teams that aren’t states the standing to field “national” teams (Puerto Rico comes to mind for the Olympics, Scotland, England, Wales for the World Cup).

    My other comment has to do with foreign nationals participating in our professional leagues. Much ado has been made of Cuban and Dominican participation in the MLB, recent focus of Haitian NFL players after the crisis there, and an increasing awareness of international NBA players from Germany, China, Argentina, France, and various African countries. Back to football, National Hispanic Heritage month has seen the recent spanish-only captioning of a Monday Night Football game between ‘Jets de Nueva York’ and ‘Dolphins de Miami’, and was the origin of one player changing his name (Johnson) to a rough spanish approximation of his number, 85, “Ocho Cinco”. I think this shows that there is an alternate trend of incorporation to professional leagues that is having some success. While it may be profit driven to increase the sport’s fanbase, I suspect that might ultimately be a better long-term predictor of success.

    That being said, I agree wholeheartedly with the overall premise (and constructivist foundation), and have long hoped to see a specific test case (albeit for national, not international, solidarity): the integration of a Cypriot team (currently restricted to Greek Cypriot players) under a hotshot foreign coach with no stake in the political conflict, which would play against Turkey and against Greece on a regular basis so as to provide a common identity against the two competing ethnic identities that shape the political landscape.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.