From the September 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
Most people learn to play games at school: football, cricket and rugby are usually played by boys from an early age, while girls play netball, hockey and tennis. But even before attendance at school, ball-games are played in groups by small children; sport is normally introduced in a formal setting at school with the application of rules and supervision by teachers.
For most people knowledge of, and interest in, popular sports starts at this period in their lives. But sport is invaluable to the state and to capitalism because the introduction of discipline into the daily routine of children helps to produce docile, conforming wage slaves for the future who have learned to accept rules and regulations unquestioningly.
Most team games have a captain, instilling at an early age the belief that leadership is part of the natural order, with some members of the team seen as having greater merit than others — a useful propaganda weapon for the state which helps to divide children in their most formative years. Similarly, the embodiment of authority in the form of a referee or umpire serves to impose the view that authority is natural in our lives and that people need to be policed in order to behave correctly.
Supporters of sport would argue that most popular games are harmless pastimes enabling the participants to display their skill and giving pleasure to the spectators; physical exercise, beneficial to health is enjoyed by people taking part in athletic sports, while indoor sports such as chess and draughts are seen to aid concentration and train the mind. Rivalry is encouraged in schools with the division into house teams. Children are taught a competitiveness which is useful to the state and business interests later on. On the playing field pupils are encouraged to shout and cheer for “their” team and exhibit behaviour that would not be tolerated elsewhere on school premises.
The rivalry between nations becomes xenophobic with reports by the media that it is a tragedy that "our" country lost or that it is a great day for Britain because “we” won. The quality of the game receives secondary consideration in a society which regards winning at any cost as the only legitimate goal. But at times rivalry and nationalism gets out of hand and the fighting that ensues is hypocritically condemned by the media that incited such emotions. Many sporting events are propaganda battles between rival states: the latest example being the Commonwealth games (claimed to be the friendly games) which have been boycotted by many countries because of Britain’s attitude over trade sanctions against South Africa.
There are frequent protests that politics should have no place in sport but sport has always been used as a political weapon, often by the same authorities who condemn such practices in others. Many sporting events have been quite blatantly politically motivated in the past and sporting links have been frequently severed from countries not considered politically acceptable. The 1936 Olympic games were intended to be a showpiece for the Nazi regime, an “Against Israel Olympiad” was held at Tripoli in 1976 in opposition to the official chess olympiad held at Haifa; racism was officially supported by the British Boxing Board of Control and coloured boxers were prevented from competing for British titles until the ban was lifted in 1947; Britain’s strict immigration laws were circumvented to allow Zola Budd, a young South African athlete, to obtain a British passport quickly and compete for Britain in international events.
Mass spectator sports divert the workers’ attention from the class struggle: unemployment, poverty and insecurity can be forgotten for an hour or two on the terraces or in front of the television. But the jingoistic rhetoric, reinforced by the playing of the national anthem and the racist implications of the “superiority” of British sports stars, disguises the artificiality of the so-called common interest of working class fans with capitalists. Workers have no country and are in conflict with the capitalists through being forced to sell their labour power to them. The illusion of common interest in sport can be seen in the exclusiveness of some sport clubs; polo has a distinctly upper-set image, maintained by selective entry of new members and subscription rates which are out of the reach of workers — not to mention the cost of keeping a stable of polo horses.
Professionalism, gambling and ticket receipts have made sport profitable in the past but it is the development of newspapers, books, radio, television and videos which has led to profits on a scale previously unheard of. Advertising has become a feature of all professional sporting events; hoardings are displayed everywhere; athletes carry sponsors’ names on their sports-clothes; boxers fight on canvasses bearing news of products. Sponsorship by large companies provides valuable publicity for their products under the guise of benevolently supporting sport. For tobacco manufacturers, sport sponsorship evades the restriction on advertising and enables them to promote an image of healthy activity related to their products:
In 1984 Dr Ledwith conducted a survey among 11, 13 and 15 year-olds and asked them which brands of cigarettes they associated with different sports. They all named the three brands manufactured by companies that had sponsored sports receiving extensive TV coverage.
Dr Ledwith concluded: "The evidence I collected suggests that the present ban on TV advertising is not enough. If the government is serious about protecting children from smoking, it must ban sponsorship by tobacco companies”. (Good Housekeeping, July 1985, p.96)
Even when advertising is banned it is often introduced covertly, and a few years ago the anti-smoking lobby protested that the design on tennis player Martina Navratilova’s outfit at Wimbledon was exactly the same as the logo for Kim cigarettes. Messages delivered in this way subtly reinforce more direct advertising methods and associate the image of the product with the performance and popularity of sporting celebrities.
The intrusion of commerce in sport is probably seen at its worst in baseball where the periods of play are actually timed to fit in with television advertising, the popularity of the game in the United States ensuring a large audience for advertisers. Touts are a feature of all major sporting events, capitalising on the law of supply and demand to charge exorbitant amounts for tickets. Fans who are desperate to see their favourite teams will pay several times the face value of a ticket and even forged tickets command substantial sums. Ticket touts are frowned on by the sporting establishment, presumably because the profiteering is unofficial and on a small scale: meanwhile the traditional dish of strawberries and cream at Wimbledon commands an inflated price; the renting of marquees for business hospitality to provide tax-free inducements for prospective customers and the sale of expensive but often shoddy souvenirs are all engaged in with the encouragement of sport’s ruling bodies.
The financial interests behind sport and the elevation of athletes into celebrities, receiving enormous amounts of money and adulation, has perverted the leisure interests of sport. Far from being a healthy pursuit, professional sportspeople frequently sustain injuries as they push their bodies to higher and higher limits of endurance because of the need to set new records and provide new thrills for the paying customers. The professional foul has become an unpleasant feature of sport, because the stakes which are played for are so high.
The use of drugs as anabolic steroids to boost strength and body weight and stimulants to boost performance has led to drug-testing becoming commonplace. Athletes have been prepared to risk considerable damage to their health, such is the competitive drive under capitalism and the rewards for those who are successful at the expense of others. The pressures of competing at top-level has led other sports stars to resort to the use of dangerous drugs to cope with the intensity of life at the top. Even for amateurs the promise of big rewards for those who can proceed to professional status, the adulation reserved for those who achieve status of some kind (however banal, trivial or artificial) contributes to fouls, cheating and aggressiveness on the playing field.
Sport is enjoyed by millions of people, and such is its popularity that in spite of the profiteering, infiltration by advertising men, harshly aggressive competitiveness, cheating, gambling and drug taking it continues to give pleasure. But socialism, by removing the negative features of capitalism, would enable sport to reach its full potential: games could then be played solely for the pleasure that they give without being manipulated for profit.