Whether benign (ping-pong) or violent (basketball, ice hockey, cricket, etc, etc, etc), international sport has always been close enough to international politics to commute. The risk of putting sport in the service of diplomacy is that it can so readily reflect national interests and rivalries. Those can flare up at any moment, as we saw on the basketball court in Beijing on Thursday evening when a PLA team, the Bayi Rockets, which plays in the CBA’s southern division, took on, in every sense, the Georgetown Hoyas, students from America’s Georgetown University.
This latest ugly example (video, via The Guardian) prompted this Bystander to re-read George Orwell’s classic essay, The Sporting Spirit, written in the wake of in ill-tempered ‘goodwill’ visit to Britain in 1945 by the Dynamo football team from Stalinist-era Moscow. Two passages in particular resonated:
At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue….
As soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused, the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes. People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. Even when the spectators don’t intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and “rattling” opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.
Orwell concluded, “There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.” Words seemingly as true today as then.