Sport in Society

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To Encourage or Corrupt

By Liam Connolly February 20, 2017

Sports are a tool. They can be used to produce great people or great athletes; they can be used to reveal one’s true character or conceal one’s shortcomings; they can be used to celebrate similarities or pronounce differences. Sport-for-development (S4D) seeks to do the former in each above-noted relationship. It is not a given, however, that sport can identify and develop the best in us.

While contrasting the purpose of sport in S4D with Hitler’s use of the Olympics may initially seem laughable, it is also perhaps the most cogent example of the way in which a tool that provides for so much hope and encouragement can be just as easily directed toward corrupt and malevolent aims. If the power of sport can be bastardized on the grandest of stages, then what sinister ends may it serve on the playing fields of any community?

The International Stage – The Olympic Games

At its very root the Olympics have always had a somewhat political intention. Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, recognized that sports are a means to a peaceful world order. Beyond their ability as a political conduit, sporting mega-events possess a certain glamour and attractiveness on which people have, for over a century now, placed great political significance and weight.[1] Regardless of the political power held by a state, a critical mass of the world’s population has determined that athletic might must also be recognized, if not sought by states.

Moreover, the power of mega-events is even greater for the young or contested regime. Berlin in 1936 and Seoul in 1988 provide cogent examples of the manner through which the Olympics were used as a stage from which leaders could announce their arrival on the international scene. For the period during which the Games are ongoing, states, nonsovereign nations, and nonstate actors have access to a forum that draws an exceptionally large and diverse audience. The Olympics, in essence, may be considered a diplomatic event in their own right; the Games are comprised of a host of representatives engaging with one another, albeit without the direct intention of mending broken relations. If nothing else, the Olympics, and all other similar sporting mega-events, provide a forum in which to begin mediation.

In the modern era in which conventional warfare is largely disregarded as an option of statecraft, the most distinct quality that makes sport a particularly useful tool in foreign policy and international relations—particularly for the totalitarian state—is that it may act as a substitute for actual warfare. The Olympics have allowed rival nations to compete in direct and physical ways that may represent ideological superiority or governmental prestige without incurring the substantial losses and risking escalation inherent in kinetic warfare.

Hitler’s Olympics – The ‘Best’ of a Nation

The 1936 Berlin Olympics are widely recognized to have been the most controversial games ever held. They are also widely remembered for Jesse Owens’ remarkable performance, securing four gold medals for the Americans in front of thousands of spectators representing a fundamentally anti-Semitic and racist government. Despite Owens’ achievements, Hitler’s totalitarian government used the Olympics as a major propaganda tool in order to shore up international support and trust.

When Hitler inherited the Games from the fallen Weimar Republic, he was initially apprehensive, which should be unsurprising considering athletic prowess is not typically determined by race, religion, or ideology.[2] In fact, when considering whether to disband the idea of hosting the Games, Hitler believed that international sport was part of a conniving plot authored by Jews to pacify German men through their substitution for war.[3]

Hitler, however, warmed to the idea of hosting the 1936 Olympics when his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, convinced him that Nazi athletic successes would be a positive expression of the vitality of the state.[4] Moreover, in hosting, the Nazis would be able to package the games not only as a sports competition, but a competition of the spirit. With near complete control over the presentation and messages of the Games, the Nazis were positioned to dictate the way in which the Social-Nationalist regime would be understood by the outside world.

With heavy governmental oversight on the planning of the Games, the Nazis implemented numerous policies to capitalize on the captive audience. Measures taken to remove anti-Semitic signs from the hosting towns for both the winter and summer games along with Ministry of Propaganda orders that “the racial point of view should not in any form be a part of the discussion of the athletic results,” particularly regarding black athletes, were set in motion to present an open and accepting nation.[5] Sport was to be used to undo the global perception that the Germans were of an isolated, elitist, and racist culture.

In addition to the policies, Goebbels’ staff also sought to build upon the Olympics with new ‘traditions’ to affirm their place as a righteous and legitimate state. To bolster the mythic historical link between ancient Greece and Nazi Germany and maintain focus on Berlin in the days leading up to the Games, Goebbels introduced the now famous torch relay in which three thousand runners would carry fire from Olympia to Berlin.[6] As an aside, and perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, the route taken from Olympia to Berlin included all those countries Hitler would eventually conquer.[7] All actions taken, malevolent or misleading, were carefully orchestrated so as to present a country that was open to the world and extremely successful under totalitarian rule.

The resulting impression of Nationalist Socialism was exactly what Hitler and Goebbels sought. With the conclusion of the Games, thousands of visitors left Berlin with a heightened sense of respect for the German government.[8] Coubertin, in his last public address, commented that “these ‘grandiose’ games, organized with ‘Hitlerian strength and discipline,’ had ‘magnificently served the Olympic ideal.’”[9] The result of the Games, despite the political turmoil of the time and the looming kinetic and ideological wars, gave Hitler and his regime needed recognition in the world political system and internal legitimacy among the next generation of Germans—a key demographic for both political and military advancement.[10] Hitler’s games were a pedestal from which to announce the power of his totalitarian state and the promise of his rule.

The Game’s Intention

Sport is just as capable of producing the stereotypically close-minded and dim-witted jock as producing the idealistic and empathetic leader. It is just as capable of exposing our true selves as presenting a carefully constructed façade. It is just as capable of highlighting commonalities between hostile communities as exacerbating their feuds.

Sports are used on the grandest of stages—the Olympic Games or FIFA World Cup—but they are also executed on the simplest of planes—in the backyard, at the community center, or on a patch of relatively flat dirt alongside the highway.

The power of sport lies in the fact that while Olympic scandals may get the most media traction, it’s on the unspectacular fields of a small community, or on the cul-de-sac roads, or in the living-room-turned-sports-complex that we have the agency to determine whether this particular encounter will contribute to the production of a great person, great athlete, or both. It is here where we determine whether it will reveal our true character or conceal it. It is here where we will decide whether we will celebrate similarities or pronounce differences.

As such, it is our responsibility as practitioners, coaches, teachers, community organizers, and anyone who interacts with sport to promote the beautiful potential in it, because when left to anyone it can segment, stunt, and undermine at the highest levels and the most basic. Youth development is not simply caught, it is taught through deliberate and intentional conversations, curriculum, relationships, and ongoing outreach. Just like the ability to deceive and corrupt, sport can inspire and encourage at all levels of play. Therein lies its true power: anyone–regardless of political, social, or physical might–can move people through sport.


[1] Alfred Erich Senn, Power, Politics, and the Olympic Games: A History of the Power, Brokers, Events, and Controversies That Shaped the Games, (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1999), x.

[2] Allen Guttmann, The Olympics, a History of the Modern Games (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 54.

[3] John M. Hoberman, Sport and political ideology, (University of Texas Press, 1984), 55.

[4] Hoberman, Sport and political ideology, 166.

[5] Guttmann, The Olympics, 68.

[6] Arnd Kruger, “The role of sport in German international politics, 1918-1945,” in Sport and International Politics: The Impact of Fascism and Communism on Sport, eds. Pierre Arnaud and James Riordan, (London: E & FN Spon, 1998), 88.

[7] Roger Abrams, Playing Tough: The World of Sports and Politics, (UPNE, 2013), 66

[8] Guttmann, The Olympics, 67.

[9] Guttmann, The Olympics, 70.

[10] Abrams, Playing Tough, 62.


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