Sport in Society

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United: the Idealist’s Beautiful Game

By Liam Connolly November 14, 2016

When I walk home from work each day, I pass through a few neighborhoods—rapidly gentrifying Salt River, affluent and predominantly white University Estate, and seemingly middle class coloured Walmer Estates. Each has a very distinct feeling. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the neighborhoods are divided primarily by race. As I’ve mentioned before, the social infrastructure of apartheid lingers in South Africa.

The final segment of my walk home is down my own street in Zonnebloem, a neighborhood that was razed to the ground between the 1960s and 1980s by the apartheid government, displacing its largely coloured population to townships outside the city. Just about every day, I walk by a group of children between the ages of six and thirteen, roughly, playing soccer on the slightly slanted cul-de-sac with a semi-deflated ball. In the Rainbow Nation that is struggling to realize integration and cross-racial interaction, I see coloured, black, and white boys and girls playing soccer together.

In light of the recent political developments in the United States, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about inclusion, integration, and communication. Regardless of your political affiliation, it seems evident that Americans, by and large, have stopped talking with each other. I also don’t think this is a purely American phenomenon. While sport is unable to single-handedly address the systemic shortcomings within any community or nation, it does provide a conduit through which to begin the conversation at home, abroad, and around the globe.

The Olympic Ideal

Historian Allen Guttmann, in speaking to the power of sports—namely the Olympic Games—observed, “to witness the spectators’ emotions when their national representative mounts the victor’s podium, when their flag is raised, when their anthem is played, is to wonder if nationalism—or sport—is not the true religion of the modern world.”[i]

Pierre de Coubertin—historian, educator, and the father of the modern Olympics—set out to revitalize the games, acknowledging that “the political purpose of the games—the reconciliation of warring nations—was more important than sports. They were merely the competitive means to a cooperative end: a world at peace.”[ii] They were always intended as a means to an end.

Moreover, it does not take a robust historical study to recognize the similarities between warfare and international sports competitions; in a time of mutually assured destruction and the catastrophic potential of escalation in warfare, sports have been able to partially fill a void. Sport purists denounce the substitution of sport for war. For them, sports are played for sport, nothing more.

Despite the ideological stand taken by purists, “sport functions as an undifferentiated vehicle of self-assertion by the state […] that it should serve the greater glory of the state—any state—is the sole criterion for its appropriation and use.”[iii] Academics who have toiled over the questions of sports in international relations have settled at the mean between extremes, perhaps best encapsulated by Guttmann when he said that, “to lament the ‘intrusion of politics into the world of sports’ is naïve. To hope that modern sports can contribute significantly to the cause of a more just and humane political order may be equally naïve.”[iv] But, sport, as with any tool, is not inherently benevolent or malevolent; it does not immediately give rise to revolution or allow for mass control. Sport’s worth is to be determined by the person or group that wields it.

The Other Side of the Tracks

A major initiative on which I am working at AMANDLA EduFootball concerns social cohesion across racial identities. The apartheid government implemented a divide-and-conquer-type mentality to the non-white communities. It called on the coloured community to distrust and despise the black community, and the black community to feel the same about the coloured community.[v]

Today, our Gugulethu-Manenberg Safe-Hub sits in Gugulethu, a black township. A stone’s throw away and literally on the other side of the tracks is Manenberg a coloured township. The field was placed there with the intention of providing for both communities. Inclusion, particularly when stunted by governmental policies, does not just happen. An intentional approach that addresses inequalities, hurdles, and obstacles at all levels—administration, staff, coaches, and players—is necessary to set a proper foundation for successfully nurturing an environment of inclusion and acceptance.

At the heart of intentional integration through sport is Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, which holds that under the following four criteria, interaction can lead to substantially decreased prejudice:

  1. The purpose of the activity is not exclusively one of ‘good will.’
  2. The groups involved in the interaction are of ‘equal status’ within the interaction.
  3. The interaction is frequent and/or long-term, allowing for it to become deep and meaningful.
  4. The activity is sanctioned by some figure of authority.[vi]

Equal status and authority will be our responsibility as staff and administrators. Through internal and facilitated conversations, we hope to start a dialogue on means through which to create an environment that supports all participants. This may include announcements in numerous languages, staff and security personnel who reflect all communities, and teams premised on maintaining equal numbers of participants from both communities among other projects.

With that environment, we will be able to bring participants together on the pitch—a controlled environment—and provide a platform for frequent and long-term interaction. As teammates, they will need to overcome differences and preconceived prejudices in order to succeed at what all of them care about beyond anything else at the Safe-Hub: being the best players on the field. The program, when completed, will provide the skills and knowledge for top-down change from staff, middle-out change from coaches, and bottom-up change from the participants.

Boys, Girls, Street Soccer, and What Matters

None of that matters to kids. The political objectives of the Olympics under de Coubertin, Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, bottom-up, middle-out, and top-down change are all irrelevant to the boys and girls who play street soccer on my road. They’re all irrelevant to the boys and girls in Gugulethu and Manenberg. Therein lies, for me, the reason soccer is called the beautiful game.

Unofficiated-half-deflated-ball-bricks-for-goals-cul-de-sac street soccer brings these kids together with one another. As a highly dynamic game driven so strongly by ideals of teamwork, cooperation, and collaboration, soccer forces us to get lost within its fluidity and rhythms. The natural cadence of the game reaches the elite athletes in the same way that it overtakes the budding amateur.

When I walk by the ongoing game on my street, the boys and girls don’t notice me. The black, white, and coloured boys and girls are so deeply invested in the game that they see nothing else. And if they’re anything like I was as a kid, they remember nothing else. Still, though, bonds and relationships form both actively and passively.

Among the most dangerous things in a world that is becoming marked by gapping chasms between people with different views, online echo-chambers like Facebook and Twitter, unchecked hostility, dogmatic and superficial hatred, factionalism, and a pervasive fear of the other, is a young generation that doesn’t know anyone unlike themselves. Sports are loved and played by the rich, poor, and middle classes, within the black, white, and coloured communities, by Muslims, Christians, and atheists, in red states and blue states and by just about every other demographic the world over. Sport and play are at the heart of youth and growth and culture.

Whether sports can solve the world’s problems matters just as much for me as the theories and historical examples of inclusion matter for the boys and girls who play day in, day out. In the modern world of selective listening, an underpinning ideal in sport demands that we hear everyone, listen to everything, and ignore nothing. Pierre de Coubertin has become something of a contentious figure and there are many people who believe his political motivations behind the Olympics were inappropriate, but he “was surely right about one thing: we need our ideals.”[vii]

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

[ii] Guttmann, The Olympics 1.

[iii] Guttmann, The Olympics, 5.

[iv] Guttmann, The Olympics, 5.

[v] There is much greater nuance to the methods and actual divisions, but that extends beyond the scope of this post and my expertise.

[vi] Allport, Gordon W. The Nature of Prejudice. (Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1954), Chapter 16: The Effect of Contact.

[vii] Guttmann, The Olympics, 5.


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