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Does sport unite people or drive them apart?
January 4, 2021 0

Are sports a catalyst for hatred and tension or quite the opposite?

Sport, in its many forms, is the largest human activity on the planet, that reflects on the human lifestyle and embodies, in its primitive image, and its physical and mental needs. It also reflects, in its more advanced form, an institutional system and phenomenon of social, economic and political dimensions that garner wide attention and broadly affects large and extended segments of society, changing the affiliations and convictions of individuals. It is even considered an icon of customs and values, contributing to building and forming identities. Sport is also part of religious and national rituals, the Olympic Games in its inception were linked to a Greek religious ritual that includes running and athletic sports and later horse races and so on until it reached its modern shape we all know now, which is considered the largest sporting event held periodically for more than a century. Moreover, sport has occupied a place in the context of military preparation and societies’ resilience in some civilizations as well as the context of recreation and entertainment for others. The biological perspective of sport has also evolved to be part of the healthy lifestyles and behavioral patterns, and it has occupied an educational place in preparing and upbringing generations.

The importance of sport is also expressed through many indicators, most notably, the volume of interaction and interest which encompass all earth’s inhabitants – voluntarily and involuntarily – as it stimulates feelings of pleasure, curiosity and enthusiasm and expresses the passion for belonging to a person. It is also an economic engine that embodies investments, markets and trading for countries, institutions and individuals. The Forbes magazine, specialized in financial figures, estimated the income of FC Barcelona in 2020 at 840 million euros. Sport is considered an economic advantage for some sport entities and even countries, and it contributes to improving infrastructure and financial returns as well as helping in providing jobs.

In this article, we will discuss the social dimension of sport, analyze and compare the contribution of sport to the interaction between individuals and societies and how it reflects on the social structure, and evaluate the features that emerge in society or in the sports environment as a result of this complex relationship at some levels. We will also address multiple perspectives on evaluating the role of sport according to its positive and negative aspects, especially since we now stand on a huge and extended legacy of experiences due to the age, continuity and spread of sport.


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Arguments supporting the notion that sport does in fact bring people closer

Sport confronts racism and intolerance

Many believe in the vital and positive role of sport in confronting racism and intolerance practices as well as combating these bad phenomena. This is what Nelson Mandela, one of the prominent fighters against injustice and racism in the world, expresses when he says “sport has the power to change the world,” deeming it a tool for change. He also describes sport as “a power to unite people,” saying that “sport creates hope in a place where there is nothing but despair. It is stronger than governments in bringing down racial barriers.” This belief is the epitome of an eternal struggle in our contemporary history against discrimination and apartheid regimes and breaking down imposed barriers based on color and race, a struggle that culminated in appointing him as the first black president in South Africa.

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Mandela was able to see the effect of sport in breaking the racial restrictions and liberating people from the shadows of discrimination that gripped societies. This is what we see in reality through teams that include players of different races, colors and origins, all of whom are treated equally. Sports provide human interaction which transcends any stereotypical images created by racism about the superiority of a color, race, or gender over another.

Behind these teams are supporting fans who follow them without discriminating; these are the vast majority. On the other hand, we cannot deny that there is a minority that is still captivated by the darkness of racism and discrimination. However, if we dealt with the situation socially, this minority of people will be influenced by this sports model which embodies the idea of ​​unity and the abolition of differences, and, over time, they will push towards the normalization of equality and fraternity among them. In return, racist practices in all their forms become rejected acts in general, or at the very least people will not be able to show their racist ideas and feelings in public, and this leads us to our next point, in which we talk about protecting sports environments from discrimination and racism forms.

Sport is subject to the authority and control of international institutions and committees – Sport has developed a legal and legislative system to preserve the ethics of the games

Sport in its official form is no longer organized and practiced in an anarchic manner or subject to local or individual rules and ethics. The general trend in organizing sports is mostly governed by systems and rules established by international federations, organizations and committees such as the International Olympic Committee and the World Football Association, and other organizations that have the power of law over most of the official and approved sports activity. This constituted an important basis for building a legislative and legal system that criminalizes discrimination and racism as immoral acts, and these laws and legislations are enforceable. Major organizations have the authority to apply the law to institutions and individuals, and even all elements concerned with sports are subject to these laws, such as clubs’ administrations and local federations, and even the public and the players. This supports the sport’s positive role in immunizing itself from racism and discrimination and their normalization. For example, the International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) approved a set of legal updates recently, with the aim of decreasing the practices of discrimination. Insults, slogans, words and even behaviors which are considered discriminatory based on “skin color, ethnic origins, geography or social structure, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, political opinions, wealth and birth” are all considered crimes and will be punished with heavy penalties, and this is an addition to previous legislations in the same field.

Even this integrated system has effectively and decisively confronted any cases of intolerance and discrimination. Some countries and local sports institutions have begun to embrace, on their own, the spirit of these laws and equality values while rejecting the various forms of racism and discrimination, many of which have built their own legislative and legal laws which are even stricter than international laws and sanctions.

Sport has begun to impose a legal system and an organizational interaction on the world level that confront forms of discrimination and racism and establish equality, respect and acceptance values. This is enforced with penalties against any person who abstains from the law or violates it.

Hosting and organizing sports competitions bring people closer

On the other hand, sports’ forms themselves consolidate the unity and brotherhood of peoples by organizing international and global tournaments and competitions and hosting them on a regular basis in various continents of the world. This opens the doors between cultures and nations, identifying societies, values ​​and behavioral patterns and gaining insight into interpersonal experiences. The modern sport enhances the flow of knowledge which doubles the opportunities for meeting and fraternity, strengthening the ties between nations. If we go back in history, we find that there was a football match that took place between the former Soviet Union team and the former German Federal team, which was held in Augsburg and was a reason for reducing tension between the two countries and leaving a good impression. The American and Chinese people also recall the table tennis match between the USA team and the Chinese team, which constituted an important point in restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries.

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Even countries and major organizations invest famous athletes, as ambassadors, with missions to bring peace, lead fraternity efforts, bring friendliness and reconciliation, advance peace efforts, and heal bad relations as well as marginalization and conflict forms.

Equality and breaking the restrictions of discrimination are products of sport within societies

As for the internal structure of society in a country that was suffering under the constraints of discrimination on the basis of sex or race, all of these restrictions began to disintegrate and vanish in many countries. Sport introduced women to fields that, previously, did not include them, due to discrimination in many cases. However, today, thanks to sports, we witness women’s sports and Olympic champions representing their countries in local and international forums. This has established a sound view of women in societies, away from discrimination.

Practicing sport is associated with education and morals

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Practicing and learning sports is associated with education and morals, as it strengthens good qualities that would make individuals confident in themselves, especially among youth, where some studies have shown that sport reduces the severity of social problems and solves some of them, such as problems of delinquency, deviancy, and social adjustment.

Sport contributes to the integration of minorities

We cannot talk about a phenomenon like intolerance and discrimination without mentioning minorities in societies and their status, as they are among the most vulnerable components of society liable to discrimination and fanaticism. Here, the vital role of sport emerges, as it gives the minorities an opportunity to prove themselves, away from isolation. It helps them to integrate and adapt to their surroundings while breaking down barriers between it and the rest of society. As the time passes and new talents emerge, many become symbols and celebrities in their societies, and the rest of the society express their pride in their relationship with these celebrities or their belonging to the same sports or national community. The world is witnessing inspiring examples of athletes who were able to break all the restrictions that prevailed in centuries that adopted racism and injustice towards other minorities. For example, at the beginning of the nineteenth century in America, a group of white people exploited the dark-skinned boxer Molyneux, treating him as a slave in wrestling arenas. Molyneux, however, used sport to break the bonds of slavery and discrimination and set off towards freedom through sport, which was a social compensation and a gateway to a new reality. The world-famous boxer, Muhammad Ali Clay, is considered one of the most prominent examples in this regard. He is not only dark-skinned but also from the Muslim minority in the United States of America. Despite all this, he was able to overcome all forms of oppression which he naturally suffered from. He became, along with all those like him, a source of inspiration for their community circles, especially the youth, motivating them to practice sport and social mobility as well as feel a sense of pride and self-affirmation. These are among the highest values ​​that sport created to help minorities rise and build their role and social status.

Among the most prominent values ​​that sport instills in minorities and marginalized and oppressed people on the basis of ethnic intolerance is the principle of equity, represented by (the objective and fair evaluation of the results). This is where these people thrive, as there is no place for equity or objective evaluation in environments in which discrimination and classism based on fanaticism and class stratification prevail. Sport takes the initiative of providing fair standards and results, as an important step in creating total equality that is not based on any kind of differentiation whether it be gender, sex, race, color, religion, or any other criteria for differentiation.

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Arguments suggesting that sports drive people against each other

Sports inflame division and racism

On the other hand, some look at sport from a different perspective. They consider it to fuel racism, ignite intolerance and discord within societies and between their people. This disease has exacerbated the social structure, given that the sports’ fans are characterized by a sense of belonging and are emotionally charged towards their sports icons, whether it is a team, a club, or a player. Belonging has become a type of fanaticism that has embodied discrimination at its highest levels, to the extent that some audiences are fanatical about a specific color of clothing, slogan, etc.  From here, racism flared up on a large scale due to sport on global levels, which is practiced through slogans, crowds’ cheers, costumes, movements, and songs and rhymes, which can be found nearly in all sporting events, asserting discrimination. What we see on stadiums or stands does not exist in the same extent in public places, entertainment places or markets, etc.  This clearly indicates the role of sport in providing an environment in which racism can grow. The World Cup finals in its latest edition in Russia witnessed racist cases when the dark-skinned Fernandinho was threatened with death and insulted after scoring by mistake in his own goal in the quarter-finals. The Sweden, Jimmy Durmaz, was insulted on social media after he caused a free-kick, through which Germany scored the winning goal. He was also threatened with murder because of it.

The Dark History of Sport

Historically, we cannot ignore the black history of sport, as it contributed to strengthening class differences and established the foundations of racism. Sport was limited to princes, kings, and the elite. For example, in the ancient Egyptian civilization, hunting was only for the nobles, not the common people, and, to this day, there are some sports that are only for the rich and presidents, such as golf. Sport represents a platform for those with intolerant and hostile behavior, through large crowds who are negatively charged towards societal groups and people. This is what usually leads to violence and counter-violence, and history is full of these models. Football is one of the most sports that witnessed violent events and riots during its competitions, and hundreds, and even thousands of people, lost their lives because of it. One of the most prominent events in this regard is the historic decision of the Manchester Court on October 12, 1908, when it decided to prevent playing football because of the violence and aggression it causes. History also records a war that broke out between Honduras and Salvador because of football; it was called the “Football War” and was due to a football match held in Mexico as a part of the Latin American qualifications, in preparation for the World Cup. The bloody events in Melbourne in 1956 between the Hungarian team and the Soviet Union are indelible in the memory of sports, which caused injuries and sparked riots and fanaticism that had popular repercussions.

Violent sports threaten the safety of society

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Sport, through its acceptance and organization of violent activities, has become a great concern for spreading violence and inciting aggression. Sports like boxing, karate, kung fu, hunting, wrestling etc. create among the generations a tendency of violence and hostility towards others. These sports directly affect their audiences who are fond of their symbols and imitate many of their movements and patterns in places and conditions not suitable for practicing them. They also develop a sense of aggression where people can resort to violence to express their anger or repression, which creates destructive clashes threatening the unity and safety of societies. It is clear that the attempt to control this through some disclaimers/notices that the scenes of such sports are not suitable for practice at home or school fails completely to prevent simulation or imitation in these places which witness violence and harm from these sports.

It is clear that sport can play a role in changing our reality, and we are the ones who can control the nature of this change, whether for the worst or for the best. On the other hand, there are responsibilities that the states and major sponsoring organizations have to harness sports to bridge the gaps, create a state of fraternity and synergy, and eliminate the negative phenomena surrounding it. The responsibility extends to the administrative and technical agencies, cadres, individuals, supporters and even media institutions for solidarity and cooperation to achieve lofty goals that can make the world a better place.


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By: Thaer Farhat – Debate instructor at QatarDebate

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