August 1, 2012

No Easy Game to Play: Nationalist Incentives from War to the Olympics


Nation-states have recently come under attack, as several scholars have argued that a global world requires novel forms of governance that will eventually make old nations a relic of the past. For the time being, however, the nation-state remains the most important form of political organization in international relations; and so does its clearest expression, nationalism.

Nationalism still plays a fundamental role in several fields of international relations, from war to politics – it is not by chance that “war made the state and the state made war”[1]; and then, war was substituted by politics, which were merely “its continuation by other means”[2]. Looking back at the last 50 years, however, I would dare to add a third field where the essence of nationalist feelings have tended to emerge quite clearly: sport. In 1945 already, George Orwell (certainly not the kind of academic one would expect to join Charles Tilly and Carl Von Clausewitz in their debates) put it very simply: sport is “war minus the shooting: […] At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare”[3].

The main reason why sport is so important for nations is that it provides a venue for expressing feelings of loyalty and belonging. Historically, there are plenty of examples: from the overtones of Gaelic sports in Ireland, to the victories of fascist Italian teams during the 1930s and the role of rugby in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement during the 1980s. Football derbies always provided opportunities to continue national confrontations in sport arenas, as it is the case of the Old Firm in Glasgow featuring Celtic, historically linked to the city’s Catholic community, and Rangers, linked to the city’s Protestant community. These stories show the close connection between professional sport, nationalism, and politics.

It is no wonder then that the Olympic Games have traditionally constituted a stage for competing nationalistic feelings. It was the case of the 1936 Games held in Nazi Berlin or the boycott by the United States and politically aligned nations of the 1980 Summer Olympics. The Olympics have traditionally translated into sport the nationalistic feelings produced by the international arena, its tensions and developments. Even before commencing, the Olympic Games of London are already victim of such Nationalist feelings: in June, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond dispatched a team of “men in black” paid with taxpayers’ money to thrust hundreds of free Saltire flags as well as offer children face painting and temporary tattoos as a protest against the ‘British’ torch passing between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The protest is due to the fact that the nation’s First Minister wwwwanted an independent Scottish team to take part of these Olympic Games: his claim did not succeed as for 2012 (Scottish athletes are still running under the United Kingdom’s flag), but this could still be a case for the future. Other small nations may follow in the future: after the winter Olympic Games of Vancouver, three out of ten inhabitants of Québec declared that they were in favour of the creation of an independent Québec olympic team; and similar claims are periodically advanced in Catalonia and in the Basque Countries.

Unsurprisingly, all these nations share a very strong identity in sport. Take the case of the Basques: Euskaltel-Euskadi is a professional road bicycle racing team from the Basque Country that works as an unofficial Basque national team and is partly funded by the Basque Government. Its riders are either from Basque Country, or at least have grown up in the cycling culture of those regions. Athletic Bilbao, too, is much more than just a football club as it represents practically a religion for many of the 2 million people living in the Basques. Its policy of picking only Basque players is strongly linked to Basque nationalism. In the same vein, FC Barcelona have successfully built a team on its youth ranks composed by Catalans-born or by player adopted by Catalonia since they were young.

Constructing a sense of commonality among people is often a process linked with the construction of a solid identification with the nation. This is why the nation-state was so successful after Westphalia. This dynamic explains why a multitude of successful sport team in professional cycling and football have tried to pursue a strong identification with their nations, as it is happening today to the sport teams of small nations aspiring to independence – Scotland, Québec, Catalonia, Basque Country… It is all but surprising, thus, that several of these small nations aim at acquiring a stand in global events such as the Olympic Games. Paradoxically enough, while scholars question the survival of the nation-state in an era of more and more complex economic and political interactions, for some people, the idea of nation remains a fundamentally important organizing concept, especially when it is played on the proper fields.

[1] Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making” in Charles Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1975: 42.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, originally” Vom Kriege, 3 vols., Berlin: 1832-34.

[3] George Orwell, “The Sporting Spirit”, originally: Tribune, London, December 1945.

About the Author

Lorenzo Piccoli
Lorenzo is a young Italian with a keenly developed understanding of minority nationalism and a fascination for everything related to regional policy. He graduated in Italy at the University of Trento, although during his studies he spent considerable time at the Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and at the University of Victoria in Canada.

One Comment

  1. […] from war to politics – it is not by chance that “war made the state and the state made war”[1]; and then, war was substituted by politics, which were merely “its continuation by other […]

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