In 1968, Avery Brundage, President of the International Olympic Committee, declared that sports, "like music and the other fine arts, transcends politics." The statement came out of a sentiment of hope rather than fact, and was, of course, incredibly naive. If Claude von Clausewitz is correct that war is merely "politics by other means," then the same can be said about sports. In 1968, the Mexican government killed several students protesting the Olympics in Mexico City. In 1972, Arab terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes in Munich. Dozens of countries boycotted the 1976 Olympics in Montreal because New Zealand insisted on maintaining "sports relations" with apartheid South Africa. Countries like Honduras and El Salvador have gone to war over soccer, and when East German athletes wanted to compete in the United States, they were denied visas for two decades. The list goes on and on, but points to one thing: sport has never transcended politics and never will.
The deep interplay between politics and sport was again prevalent throughout the 2011 Cricket World Cup. As Sri Lanka inched its way into the finals, the Tamil diaspora around the world was divided about whether to support the team. During the final months of the protracted civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which saw its bloody conclusion in May 2009, many Tamil civilian lives were lost (due to the actions of both the government and the rebels). The Tamil diaspora now attempts to lead the charge against the Sri Lankan government for real and perceived injustices committed during the final months of the war.
On the streets of London, England, members of the Tamil Youth Organization (TYO) handed out pamphlets and raised awareness of the boycott. As one protester told Tamil Guardian, "Sport is not just a pastime. We cannot protest about war crimes against civilians one minute and cheer for sports teams from that state next. Is it right to welcome sports teams representing Libya to international sports fora today?" On social networking sites, such as Facebook, debates about the usefulness of the boycott were pervasive. Some members of the diaspora argued that supporting the Sri Lankan cricket team against India in the finals could foster a sense of unity in the country following a highly divisive ethnic conflict.
As many scholars have argued, international sporting events like cricket serve not only as a form of national recreation, but also national re-creation. As Rob Nixon has noted, sporting events are "exhibitionist events imbued with the authority to recreate or simulate the nation, offering a vigorous display of a proxy body politic." It is a high-energy display of synchronicity and discipline, one dedicated to sacrificing the self for the collective. It is, in other words, one of the most important rituals of a state's civil religion. Sport may be a pastime, but it has transcendental importance. As Nixon writes, "Indeed, sporting idiom is shot through with a religious register: fanatical fans adore their sporting idols or gods, and the crowd mood builds toward a state of rapture, ecstasy, or frenzy."
International sporting events have always been a tool used by states to solidify their image abroad. The Soviet Union, for example, used sport to strengthen the image of communism among its neighboring countries. As Soviet writers Yuri Kotov and Ivan Yudovich stated in 1978, "The increasing number of successes achieved by Soviet sportsmen in sport has particular significance today. Each new victory is a victory for the Soviet form of society and the socialist sports system; it provides irrefutable proof of the superiority of socialist culture over the decaying culture of capitalist states." The self-image of the state as well as processes of national myth-making becomes deeply embedded in sporting competitions. Boycotts as well as the excluding of countries from competition become ways in which the international community or ethnic minorities deny or problematize the national myth of a particular state. It is a way of communicating to the country that its image of itself is not legitimate.
In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, South Africa's system of apartheid (whereby the black majority were denied political rights as well as social and economic opportunities) caused the regime to become an international pariah. South Africa was banned from a host of sporting competitions such as golf, cricket, tennis and rugby. The profound cold shoulder received by the international community cut so deep that in a 1977 survey, white South Africans ranked the lack of international sport as one of the most damaging consequences of apartheid. According to Rob Nixon, "White South Africans were vulnerable to a boycott not because sport transcends politics, but because sport's quasi-theological rites are wholly integral to the politics of nationalism."
In countries like Sri Lanka, where minority populations have long nursed socio-political, religious, and linguistic grievances with the state, boycotts should come as no surprise. While the contexts of apartheid South Africa is wholly different from Sri Lanka, similarities exist in that marginalized populations, especially those in the diaspora, insist that they cannot participate in the national myth. Many in the Tamil diaspora do not believe in Sri Lanka's sporting idols, and feel left out of what Emile Durkheim termed the "collective effervescence". This is unfortunate, as sport has historically offered a profound avenue through which to rally populations around a unified civil religion and could serve as the arena for reconciliation.
Follow Amarnath Amarasingam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AmarAmarasingam