Chauvinism and hypocrisy

The Olympic torch relay protests give the lie to the formal separation of sport and politics, argues James Turley

Controversy over the looming Beijing Olympics initially erupted over the vexed issue of Darfur and Sudan, where China is effectively bankrolling a brutal civil war, but this has now largely been supplanted by a renewed focus on the older problem of Tibetan self-determination. Following the violent conflicts which erupted in the urban centres of Tibet in March, activists in the west have since been interfering wherever possible in the torch relay, an international jolly which transports this Olympic symbol from Olympia in Greece to the host city.

In London, the torch was almost physically grabbed by protestors several times, although never successfully seized; another protestor attempted to bring a fire extinguisher to bear on the flame, but was wrestled to the ground by Chinese security staff. (The abiding image of the relay so far, indeed, has been those guards, in their eerily matching tracksuits, springing into action from their mellow canter.) In Paris, progress was hairier still - the torch was actually extinguished no less than three times. At the time of writing, similar events are expected in San Francisco - to say nothing of Tibet itself, which is still on the planned route.

Invented by Josef Göbbels to link the nascent Third Reich to classical antiquity in the infamous games of 1936, the relay has since somehow exponentially increased in ostentatious vulgarity. The London leg alone saw the torch carried by such sporting legends as the Sugababes (who, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not run, but rather sat on a bus) and - on the bizarre insistence of sponsors Coca Cola - washed-up former Big breakfast presenter Denise Van Outen. The planned route itself is comically elliptical, and The Guardian idiosyncratically calculated the torch’s carbon footprint as the equivalent of that produced in a year by five average Britons (April 8).

It is worth looking into the peculiar importance of the entire Olympic event, and the ideological content of sporting competition more generally.

Olympic ideological history

The roots of the modern Olympics (the first games were held in Athens in 1896) are by and large an expression of the then (and, to some degree, still persisting) ideology of the aristocracy - particularly in the form of the British public school system so admired by Pierre Fredi, the French nobleman who invented the modern games.

The chief practical effect of this provenance was the insistence on amateurism - that athletes should not compete for money. This was presumably targeted at the ‘philistine’ working classes, who needed to earn money; however, it was never going to be the case that money could be entirely kept out of such a rapidly expanding event, and the net effect (as in the similar amateurs-only rule in the Rugby Football Union) was to keep, or kick, the proletarian riff-raff out.

There are two other ideological elements which are of significance. The first, and most obvious, is the link to the classics - it is, after all, a revival of an ancient Greek custom. The main point of interest here is the contrast with earlier classical humanism, an intellectual movement that existed across Europe, tied up with the renaissance and other developments in late-feudal/early bourgeois society, whereby the languages and texts of antiquity came to constitute an international culture among various upper-crust elements.

The classics became institutionalised in the universities and then in the expanding public school system, and it is interesting that the paramount expression of Greco-Latin revivalism to emerge from this particular milieu, in that period, is a competitive sporting event of unprecedented scale - a far cry from the pseudo-utopian ideal of a European-wide intellectual endeavour.

This is explained by our second element - the introduction of imperialist nationalism that prepared upper class youth for their function as an instrument of colonial administration. In the early days of the Olympics, then, the whole affair was cut to measure for essentially an aristocratic knees-up.

The organic link between imperialist administration and the British (or other) aristocracy is de facto dissolved with the fall of the empire, as is the character of high-profile sporting competition as effectively the preserve of upper-class amateurs. Association and both wings of rugby football are now largely professional, as are those other great former aristocratic pursuits, cricket and boxing. The Olympics was more astringent in its rules from the beginning, and held out for longer than most, but finally devolved the question of amateurism to the individual sports’ international federations in the 1970s, as it became increasingly implausible for the self-financed western athletes to compete with the state-financed but technically amateur competitors in the eastern bloc. One by one, all have abandoned amateurism except the boxing federation, which defines amateur boxing according to a specific rule-set rather than the question of financial restitution.

As time has gone on, then, the defining feature of the Olympics has been its intimate relationship with money on one side and, on the other, nationalism and chauvinism; indeed it has become another reason for the British to fly the union jack. When a country with pretensions to grandeur fails to win an adequate bounty of Olympic medals, the press indulges in a flurry of articles, from sports writers and athletes alike, demanding this or that institutional reform to ensure a better showing next time around - better sports academies, rejigging of contracts, more lottery money ... Failure is categorically not an option; Britain (or France, or America) must keep up appearances in the sporting world.

The point is not, really, to win, but simply to conscript as many people from across society - but especially from the working classes - into the practices of engaging with the games as a partisan of their nation. This is not limited to the actual act of watching the events themselves, either from the couch or the stadium, but the entire associated rituals of following the coverage, engaging in these debates about how ‘we’ can do better next time round, the build-up, and even - as we saw three years ago - the selection of host cities. (Recall Jacques Chirac’s infamous remarks about the suitability of London for the 2012 events: “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that ... After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food.”)


It should not be a surprise, given the pettiness of the xenophobic slights surrounding international sports, to discover nearly-naked double standards behind the tailing of the anti-Chinese protests by pillars of the establishment. American presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton called on George Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies; even George Clooney, the doyen of liberal Hollywood, told BBC Radio Five Live’s Gabby Logan that “if you want to play with the grown-ups and get out from behind your giant wall, you’re going to have to address human rights issues”.

The elephant in Clooney’s living room is that, no matter how disgraceful the denial of Tibetan self-determination or the actions of Chinese clients in Darfur (he is more concerned about the latter), they do not mark China out as particularly nefarious among the rogue’s gallery of capitalist states. The idea that China should learn about human rights from the United States, home of the CIA, the school of the Americas and Gitmo, is perfectly ludicrous (indeed, Chinese press releases have on occasion made this point, and not without justification); and, while Clooney is at least some kind of sincere liberal, albeit clearly one with an enormous blind spot, the appearance on the scene of the likes of Clinton constitutes the epitome of hypocrisy.

That said, it is clear that the establishment is deeply divided over this question. The reasons behind this are prosaic but instructive, and revolve around the pivotal, though subordinate, role that China plays within the world economy as a whole. Chinese money and industrial capacity has been crucial in sustaining the consumer boom in the US, and more or less indirectly elsewhere, for the past decade; in the wake of the collapse of Bear Stearns and Northern Rock and the ongoing credit crunch, maintaining good relations with China is crucial.

However, the increasing power of China on the world stage constitutes effectively both an extension of US hegemony and a potential rival to that hegemony. As a potential competitor, and to keep it in line as an extension of US hegemony, we see a carrot and stick approach. Massive investments, the boom in trade, Chinese purchases of US government bonds, etc, are accompanied by flattery, such as awarding the Olympics, and criticism, whereby anti-Chinese movements (Tibetan, Falun Gong and the rest), while not being officially promoted, are given prominent and sympathetic media coverage.

International sport

Communists find this whole side-show farcical, but telling. We do not dismiss all competitive sport (as some do) as fundamentally reactionary, and acknowledge, for instance, the prevalence and militancy of leftwing ‘ultras’ (crews of football supporters) in Europe. The identification with a particular sporting team or formation is, after all, an identification with a collective cultural endeavour which can be overdetermined with progressive as well as reactionary content.

International sport, however, is fundamentally overdetermined with reactionary content. It takes as given the prevailing nationalist ideology that sustains the most significant division in the working class of all - that of the arbitrary borders that have parcelled us up into small, mutually antagonistic chunks. Indeed, the coextension of international sport with the system of nation-states is itself the reason that it persists over and above national and other models, which in the current era of premiership super-squads and suchlike deliver a generally far higher quality of performance. International competitions are deliberately constructed as chauvinist bun-fights, and rely on chauvinism for their success.

We point to the example of the Workers Olympiad of the 1920s and 30s, which received teams from parties, trade unions, workplaces and almost any other axis of proletarian collectivity, and which existed precisely in counterposition to the nationalist-aristocratic ‘official’ Olympics, as a fine but unfairly forgotten part of our history - and a great example to the future cultural organisations of the left.