The International Politics of Sport in the 20th Century

The International Politics of Sport in the 20th Century

The International Politics of Sport in the 20th Century

The International Politics of Sport in the 20th Century


Taking the turn of the century as a good time for a recap, ten sports scholars from five countries look at global issues, including the Olympic Games and the International Football Federation (soccer) and the impact of communism, Nazism, religion, and working-class culture. Then they look at more specific issues, such as the struggle of black athletes for recognition in the US, the part played by sport in the racist apartheid regime of South Africa, the rise of women's sport, the fight for rights by handicapped and gay athletes, and the relationship between sport and terrorism.


Modern sport entered the twentieth century largely as the private fiefdom of the new social strata born of industrialization and urbanization. It was a social innovation, confined to national boundaries, that had its roots in the emergence of new forms of sociability. Engendered thus by private initiative, the new sports associations and clubs pursued goals that were essentially commercial and hedonistic. What is more, for the most part they excluded women, labourers and certain ethnic minorities.

What was interesting about these early sports developments is that in all European countries and the USA, the state displayed a total lack of interest in the new movement. Modern sport in its institutionalized and competitive forms (the setting up of national and international federations, the organization of international competition between national teams, the re-invention of the Olympic Games) barely permits one to envisage its immediate utilization for political ends.

The defenders and promoters of sport could hardly have imagined, at the turn of the century, that sports competition would have an impact on public opinion and become an instrument of international policy. Sport, sportsmen, sports associations and clubs were never seen as potential actors in social and cultural life, in politics and economics.

That was not the case with gymnastics, physical and military training. Gymnastics societies, for example, were the pedagogical and political instruments for building a national identity. To learn to put one's body at the service of one's country stems from a strategy of acculturation of the common people in the same way as was the learning of language and national culture.

After World War I, however, all this began to change. Particularly in Europe, there was an extraordinary upsurge in the sports phenomenon and, more especially, a constant rise in the number of international tournaments. Universalization of sport is the remarkable feature of the post-1918 world. This was a new situation in its sheer magnitude and in its impact on the public. Sport and sporting spectacle became a near-universal phenomenon to which the press, both general and specialized, contributed powerfully to expand.

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