Sport plays an increasingly important role in society. During the 20th century, sport developed rapidly from part-time pastimes, especially for the wealthier classes who could afford to spend their spare time in recreational activities, to grow to a major professional, multi-national business that encompasses the media, marketing and commercial enterprise, an extension of the entertainment industry.
With the growth of television, major sporting events, such as SuperBowl Sunday in the United States, when the country's two top football teams play for the annual title, can command the biggest advertising revenues for the TV networks of the year. Likewise, soccer games such as the annual European Champions League final or the Olympic Games, staged over 17 days once every four years, command worldwide audiences and advertising and sponsorship deals worth many billions of dollars.
While sport essentially pits one man or woman against another, or one team or nation against another, it has also been found to have the power to unite people from different races, religions and nations, and to help overcome prejudices. In 1906, William James published the essay The Moral Equivalent of War, in which he proposed the creation of a new type of national services for males, to provide young men with a form of diversion for their energies in a positive manner.
George Orwell, writing an essay shortly after the end of World War II in December 1945, decried the growing public obsession with international sport. Orwell wrote: "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 was not a fan of the International Olympic Committee, the Lausanne, Switzerland-based private club of fewer than 120 selected individuals who regard themselves as the custodians of a lofty "Olympic spirit," of a gentlemanly and amateur approach to sport which was originally founded by the French nobleman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, in 1894. Borrowing heavily from the spirit of "play up and play the game," found in the privileged, fee-paying schools Victorian England, de Coubertin sought to recreate the best ideals of Olympian sport from ancient Greece. There, whenever the Games were being contested, a global truce was enforced.
De Coubertin's strictly amateur first Olympic Games of the modern era were held in Athens in 1896. According to Simon Anholt, a British researcher, the Olympics are one of the best opportunities for a country to draw international attention. This has also made the Olympics a highly politicized event, where nations compete on the stadium rather than the battlefield, with warriors replaced by athletes.
Despite the I.O.C.'s efforts to keep the Olympics above politics, this has rarely been the case. The 1936 Olympics, winter and summer, were hosted by Germany and used extensively to promote Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime. The next time that the Olympics were staged, in 1948, no German teams were allowed to compete, having been on the losing side of World War II. In 1976, black African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics, unhappy that New Zealand, which had maintained sporting links with the racist, apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1980, the United States led a boycott by 60 other countries of the Moscow Games in protest at the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. And when the United States hosted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, missing from the competing nations was the Soviet Union and many of its eastern bloc satellite states in a reprisal boycott.
The role of race, and racism, was often a key issue in sport through the 20th century. On December 26, 1908, Jack Johnson, the son of a slave, became the first black boxer to win the world heavyweight title, after beating Canadian boxer Tommy Burns. Johnson's defeat of a white boxer in a period of segregation in many southern states of America stoked underlying tensions. Many Americans called for former champion Jim Jeffries to return from retirement to defeat Johnson and win back the title for the whites.
Johnson and Jeffries met on July 4, 1910. More than 20,000 fans and 100 correspondents and writers watched Johnson knock down Jeffries, the first time Jeffries had ever been floored in a fight. Johnson's victory angered white people to such an extent that the news reel movie of the fight was banned from being shown in some cities.