Does international sport defang nationalism?

David Papineau has written a piece arguing that international sporting events like the ongoing Winter Olympics can encourage “a better kind of nationalism”. In his view, “international sport can’t help but boost understanding and counteract chauvinism”. This, he claims, is because all sporting contests imply recognition of the other side as moral equals. It presupposes respect for the other side, and helps to demonstrate that “rivalry does not have to mean conflict”. Papineau believes that supporting your compatriots in these sort of events exemplifies ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’: balancing legitimate partiality towards your own country with acknowledgement of the moral status of others. I’m not sure.

A first point to make is that events like the Olympics might affect not only the type or form of nationalism, but may also contribute to the salience and legitimation of nationalism. In other words, even if they are converting ‘bad’ nationalism into ‘good’ nationalism, they may simultaneously be creating more nationalism. This was an argument I pursued in discussing the ‘banal nationalism’ of the London Olympics in 2012: laying out the ways in which media coverage in the UK reinforces the notion that Britain is separate and more important than other countries, and that support or solidarity for foreigners is aberrant.

Of course, Papineau probably would not see this as negative: reinforcing national identity presumably helps ‘root’ our rooted cosmopolitanism. The fundamental question is whether the identification and tribalism engendered by sporting competition is more generally positive or negative.

Papineau claims that “You might be cast down if your country loses, or elated if they win, but no sane fan feels the kind of visceral resentment occasioned when a nation loses territory or is humiliated in a war”. I’m sceptical. Reflecting on my own feelings, I have to say I don’t feel visceral loathing very often, but when I do I’m embarrassed to say it’s most likely to be directed at opposing football teams (the only other type of people that evoke similar repellence are politicians I disagree with ideologically. Make of that what you will). I have friends that Manchester United, but it’s very much in spite of this fact.

That said, the sort of loathing I can muster even at my most visceral is pretty tame – after all, I’m a rootless cosmopolitan who’s never seen my country invaded. An analysis of UK newspapers’ coverage of the 2002 football World Cup shows that journalists are less restrained. Argentinians were described as “Neanderthal” and the French berated for their “arrogance, duplicity, shabbiness and crookery” – closer to dehumanisation than acknowledgement of fundamental moral equality. Britain’s military conflicts with both countries were repeatedly rehearsed, with numerous references to the Falklands, and France described as “natural enemies”.

If you’re in a charitable mood, you might write these off as jokes. But what about the woman assaulted in Canada  for wearing a Portugal football shirt? Or the 7 year old boy and disabled man attacked in Scotland for wearing England shirts? These cases make it hard to resist the conclusion that at least some people’s nationalistic passions turn ugly, encouraged by sporting competitions.

The occasional outbursts might be dismissed as a small minority, counterbalanced by the positive effect of events like the Olympics on other nationalistic people. Perhaps, but I’d like to see more evidence. Papineau offers two examples in support of his claim that “international sport is demonstrably a serious force for peace”. The first is cricket matches between India and Pakistan, the second football matches between the Netherlands and Germany. His second example is somewhat undermined by his acknowledgement that the Dutch continue to harbour negative stereotypes about German footballers. But more fundamentally, there is nothing I’m aware of that suggests these sporting contests played a causal role in encouraging international peace. Rather, it seems more plausible to me that thawing relations between the respective countries made the sporting events possible. It is notable that India and Pakistan didn’t play each other between 1961 and 1978: a period encompassing the main era of military conflict. And, against these wars that we can’t demonstrate sport averted, we can point to the 1969 ‘Football War’ between El Salvador and Honduras that was sparked, if not caused, by a World Cup qualifier.

The benefits that Papineau attributes to international sport may occur in some contexts for some people. But his account fails to show that these benign phenomena are widespread or significant, and fails to account for the potential harm caused by sporting tribalism.

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