There is an immortal line from the 1965 film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, whose scenario is an international flying tournament in the year 1910. Robert Morley, playing the pompous newspaper magnate Lord Rawnsley, tells us that “the problem with these international affairs is that they attract foreigners”. As communists, who reject any idea of loyalty to the nation, we would express it differently: the problem with international competitions is that they promote patriotism.
In the current spectacle of the European football championship, every game is preceded by fervent singing of the national anthem of the contending countries, while English nationalism goes one step further by roundly booing the German national anthem. Hardly surprising that, in the post-Brexit atmosphere of nostalgia for Empire, the successes of the England team are being treated in the media as a beacon of hope and national reconciliation, in contrast to the divisions sown by Brexit, and above all as consolation for the humiliations Britain is currently experiencing at the hands of the EU over Brexit regulations, the US over Northern Ireland, and Russia in the Black Sea.
None of this is new. In 1980, World Revolution number 32 contained an article on the Olympics of that year, which were blatantly being used as a vehicle for western bloc propaganda against its Russian imperialist rival following the latter’s invasion of Afghanistan. It reminded us, against the idea that “you should keep politics out of sport”, that “The rise of big international sporting competitions corresponded exactly with the development of that other form of international competition: imperialism. The modern Olympics began in the 1890s when world capitalism was beginning the long trek towards the first imperialist war. Ever since, these ‘highlights of the sporting calendar’ have provided the opportunity for real orgies of nationalism. Beneath all the talk of international cooperation through sport, the real face of capitalism has never been very far from the surface on these occasions. In 1936 the Olympics were a blatant advertisement for Nazism (and thus for its bourgeois mirror image, anti-fascism). In 1956, the Melbourne Olympics helped drown the noise of the western imperialists’ adventure at Suez and Russia’ brutal liquidation of the Hungarian workers’ uprising. In 1968, the Mexico Olympics were preceded by a mass slaughter of student protestors. In 1972, the Munich Olympics became part of the inter-imperialist struggle in the Middle East and of the European anti-terrorist campaign, following the blood-soaked Palestinian commando raid. The 1978 World Cup helped to bring respectability and fat profits to Argentina’s vicious military junta”.
What is a bit more up to date is the way that the opening ceremonies in the Euros also ask us to take sides in the battle between Woke and anti-Woke: should our players “Take the Knee” to demonstrate against racism in sport, or would we prefer them to “take a stand” against political correctness gone mad? Either way, like the flag waving and the national anthems, all this serves to deluge us with the dominant ideology. Both sides of this “culture war” – multiculturalism and diversity on the one hand, “free speech” and “saying what we all really think” on the other – have their corporate and state backing while presenting themselves as expressions of rebellion against oppression.
It’s a central feature of capitalism that all the collective efforts and skills of the producers are appropriated by the ruling class and become a force standing above and against them. The same can be said for the skills and collectivity that can make sport played well such an exhilarating activity to watch and take part in. In this society of alienation, the best of human potential and achievements are seized on by the reigning power to reinforce the grip of its pernicious ideology, to peddle its fake versions of community, and to justify the savage competition between nation states.
For a more in-depth treatment of the issue of sport under capitalism, read the following articles: