Socialist Worker

Sport’s race to the bottom

Modern sport is not about play or enjoyment, argues Chris Bambery. Instead it reflects the constraints and ideology of capitalist society

Issue No. 2113

This week the Olympic games open in Beijing in China. They will be the highlight of yet another much hyped “summer of sport” we are encouraged to watch and enjoy.

For millions of people sport provides an escape from the reality of everyday life. It provides something they can identify with, whether a team or an individual, in a world in which we are increasingly isolated.

Yet the reality is that the Olympics is a corporate driven event. Corporate sponsorship for the Beijing games is double that of the games in Sydney in 2000 and three times more than those in Athens in 2004.

Beijing city authorities have been vigilant in banning all advertising by non-sponsors. Spending on billboards and outdoor advertising has topped $2.7 billion.

McDonalds will provide the official Olympic eating place in Beijing while Coca-Cola is the official drink of the games.

Meanwhile one million migrant workers have been encouraged to leave the city. There’s nothing new about this.

The Russians cleansed Moscow of dissidents in 1980. Four years later Los Angeles cleared homeless people off the streets. Barcelona’s Roma were banished from Olympic areas in 1992.

When protests over China’s treatment of Tibet greeted the Olympic flame being carried through London and other cities, up went the cry “keep politics out of sport”. Yet politics has always been part of the games.


The most notorious example was the 1936 Berlin games, used by Adolf Hitler to showcase the Third Reich. In 1968 Mexico’s rulers ordered a massacre of protesting students on the eve of the official opening of the Olympics.

The Soviet Union only secured the 1980 games by threatening to quit the International Olympic Committee. The US, cheered on by Margaret Thatcher, led a boycott over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet bloc responded by boycotting the Los Angeles games.

But politics is not only central to the Olympics – it shapes all sport. Sport is portrayed as something as old as the hills. Yet it is a product of capitalism.

For the majority of the time human beings have been on the planet they have not known anything approximating to modern sport. In pre-class societies humans co-operated together to eke out an existence. Physical exercise was a daily reality rather than something separate from the work process.

The ancient Olympics involved religious ceremonies, including sacrifices, and military contests between “athletes” representing Greece’s patchwork of warring city states. It had nothing to do with sport as we know it.

Activities involving balls in Japan and China have been practiced for centuries but these are Buddhist rituals. Among Native Americans lacrosse was “played” for days as a form of military training.

Medieval or pre-industrial ball “games” in Britain were melees, usually aimed at reinforcing parish or other boundaries, rather than being played as a game between villages or town inhabitants. There was no distinction between the male spectators and players and there were no rules.

There is no obvious connection between these events and modern games like football and rugby.

Football lays claim to being the most popular game in the world. It developed as a popular game in this country in the second half of the 19th century.

Saturday afternoon holidays opened the way for popular sport. A quarter of the clubs in the current four major leagues were founded by the churches, which were keen to grow in the new urban working class areas.

Industrialists were quick to promote sport. Arsenal was made up of workers at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Other clubs whose origins lie in works teams include West Ham United (Thames Iron Works), Manchester United (Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway), and Southampton (Woolston shipyard), while Sheffield Cutlers became Sheffield United.

The regulation of the workplace was reflected on the football field. Time periods for contests were established and measured accurately thanks to newer sophisticated timepieces.

The division of labour in team games required specific positions and particular, as opposed to general, skills. Winners and losers were unambiguously clear, outright and absolute. Hierarchies were integrated into sport.

Competition is central to capitalism and affects every kind of human activity, ­intruding into love, play and all social relations. It characterises sport.

Sport without competition is a contradiction in terms. Sport represents a tyranny over human effort by machines, the watch and arbitrary rules.

So under capitalism, sport is all about­ trying to be first, beating an opponent or doing better than others by setting a new record. Training is the hard labour of sport and is increasingly inhumane.

Sportsmen and women are portrayed as free and equal. According to this idea they compete equally and are then ranked according to their performance.

The hero of this ideology is the “self-made” man or woman who attains their advancement on the basis of their own merit and through their own efforts. The lesson is that anyone can make it to the top. The reality is rather different.

The teenagers who become professional footballers are not necessarily the “best” or most talented players.

They are often those most prepared to accept the tight discipline and intensive training demanded of them and distort their bodies in the process. Drug use becomes common as athletes look to push beyond natural, physical limits.

Physical activity has become detached from play and enjoyment. There will be no “play” at the Olympic games. No one is there to play, but to compete and win.

Nationalism is central to sport, and will be so at the Olympics as much as at the football World Cup. Sport has been used as a tool of imperialism.

Trinidadian Marxist CLR James showed how cricket was used in the British West Indies to disseminate ideas that were central to maintaining colonial rule.


Gymnastics developed in Germany as a conscious attempt to train young people for military service. The modern Olympic games were invented by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that sport was central to winning wars.

Sport is sold as a way of escaping from the stresses of life and many ordinary people see it as such. We can examine the role of “leisure” under capitalism against the reality of work.

We live in a society where we have to sell our labour power to live. Work becomes something that dominates our lives, over which we have no control and which creates little or no sense of achievement.

In this context, working time becomes sharply and antagonistically separated from non-working time. We place enormous value upon our “free” time. But “free” time is not free – it is reliant on and shaped by the market.

As the US Marxist Harry Braverman argues, “The filling of the time away from the job also becomes dependent on the market, which develops to an enormous degree those passive amusements, entertainments, and spectacles that suit the restricted circumstances of the city and are offered as substitutes for life itself.


“Since they become the means of filling all the hours of ‘free’ time, they flow profusely from corporate institutions which have transformed every means of entertainment and ‘sport’ into a production process for the enlargement of capital.”

He adds, “So enterprising is capital that even where the effort is made by one or another section to find a way to nature, sport or art through personal activity and amateur or ‘underground’ innovation, these activities are rapidly incorporated into the market so far as is possible.”

Sport as we understand it today is a product of capitalism and is shaped by all of the prejudices and restrictions that exist in wider society. It is not a natural development.

In a world in which we controlled our lives and were at one with our environment we would enjoy swimming in the sea or trekking the mountains as much as reading a book, helping construct a home or growing plants. Physical activity would become liberated from the constraints of competition.

Human emancipation will not involve 22 men playing football watched by 50,000 spectators and millions more on television. Nor will it involve men and women crashing up and down a swimming pool competing against each other and the clock.

Physical recreation and play are about the enjoyment of one’s body, human company and the environment. Sport is not.

It is about competing and obeying arbitrary rules – an ideal preparation for the capitalist productive process.

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Tue 5 Aug 2008, 17:37 BST
Issue No. 2113
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