Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq an unsettling phrase found its way into the common parlance of coalition forces fighting to secure and maintain foreign control in Baghdad.
Areas in the capital outside the control of British and American troops and deemed unsafe were denoted by the use of the term ‘The Red Zone’. This expression has also been coined in the context of American football to describe the area between the 20-yard line and the goal line.
The shared meanings of this term are striking and disturbing because of how few similarities are shared between the situations where such a phrase would be uttered.
Unequivocally, war is not a game. Nevertheless, for many the relationship between sport and all forms of political conflict are undeniable. For millions sport is inextricably linked to identity. If the personal is the political, it seems entirely logical that sport becomes a microcosm of political action.
When a drone, technology originally developed for use in the military field, caused the recent Euro 2016 football qualifier between Serbia and Albania to be abandoned, many were shocked by the speed that the game descended into violence.
As with the geopolitical climate in many Eastern European states current tensions between Serbia and Algeria stem from underlying strains relating to conflict in Kosovo and Albanian demands that Serbia upholds Albanian minority rights in the Southern regions of Serbia.
The European Union’s reaction to the situation was to state that politics must stay outside the stadium completely but where competition is concerned, is this impossible? Ultimately, the very nature of international sporting competition divides national teams into the victors and the vanquished.
Sport provides a means for facilitating non-violent conflict but when political tensions are augmented there is always a chance that events in the stadium will mirror those in the political arena.
In addition to mirroring the political conflicts of the moment sport can also be used to regenerate previously held tensions to transfer them from the field of battle to the field of play. In the case of the now legendary footballing rivalry between Argentina and England sporting endeavour was used as a means of restoring national pride.
Clashes between the two teams gained additional significance during the 1986 World Cup after military conflict four years previously augmented feelings of rivalry between the two countries. Maradona has subsequently described how, with the memory of the capitulation of their forces in the Falklands keenly felt in the Argentinian’s hearts, the match became a means to avenge those dead in the conflict.
The cause of the hooliganism and violence between fans after the match can be attributed to some extent to the notorious ‘Hand of God’ incident but ultimately it was political factors that played the greatest part in solidifying the bitter rivalry between the two teams.
Despite these examples, to portray sports as simply a means of facilitating political factionalism, mirroring tensions and funnelling a yearning for a military recompense is to focus on the aggressive element of competition while neglecting its capacity for unification and progressive political change.
Only a phenomenon with such a unique capability to embody the identity of the individual has the ability to augment political tension with one hand and quell it with the other. Sporting endeavour is the embodiment of the human condition. Our desire for gratification leads us to join with others to achieve an ambition that can exists independent of class, gender, culture or race.
In the years leading up to the end of South African apartheid rugby was a strongly divisive sport. Traditionally the sport of the upper class white minority, it was used to promote political unity by Nelson Mandela. Walking onto the Ellis Park pitch before kick off at the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Mandela, wearing the shirt of white Afrikaner Francois Pienaar, provided South Africans of all races with a means of transcending the barriers of politically engendered racism.
As large-scale events become increasingly important for the global relevance of countries, the relationship between sports and politics alters. More recently, it has been the major sporting occasions that muster the greatest potential for changing the face of international politics.
The spotlight focused on China for the 2008 Olympics was used by campaigners to showcase politically sensitive issues including China’s high levels of pollution and controversial policies in Tibet.
A tradition has formed where various countries boycott the Olympics and other events in order to make political statements.
Sport and politics are inextricably linked. The European Union may argue that there is no place for politics in sport because of the detrimental affects it can cause. Practicing sport in an apolitical environment is not only impossible but in many ways also undesirable.
When German and British troops played football in No Mans’ Land on Christmas Day in 1914, human nature was allowed to prosper over political division. Thus, to rid sport of politics is to loose a means of pursuing positive change on a global scale.