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International Socialism, December 1996


Chris Bambery

Marxism and sport


From International Socialism 2:73, December 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Sport is enjoyed by millions of people in our society – and also, precisely for the same reason, sport is big business. Total revenues generated by sport in the US and Canada (from ticket sales to purchases of sports equipment) were more than $88.5 billion dollars last year, and are projected to rise to $160 billion by the turn of century. It is estimated that by then North American firms would be spending $13.8 billion dollars on advertising through sport alone – while global sports advertising is set to reach $430 billion. The television rights to the US National Football League for 1990–1994 earned NFL $43.6 billion. Nike’s total sales in the US were $4.73 billion in 1994. Some $600 million came through Michael Jordan branded basketball shoes! In 1993 Nike spent almost $90 million on advertising and marketing.

Football is often touted as the ‘people’s game’. Yet for many, attendance at a premiership game is simply beyond their means – that’s if they can get a ticket to see big clubs like Manchester United or Newcastle United. The Chelsea versus Aston Villa game at the beginning of the 1996–1997 season saw each of the 28,000 people attending pay, on average, £20 a head. For the 1,750 away supporters who were permitted access there was no concession for children – they also paid £20. This perhaps helps explain why the Social Trends survey shows that while 22 percent of the UK population attended a sports event as a spectator, more still are listed as having visited a historic building (23 percent), the cinema (33 percent) or the library (39 percent). [1] The survey also shows that in Britain ‘people in social class AB were twice as likely to have gone swimming or played in team sports than those in social class E’. [2]

For some clubs the money collected at the gate is no longer the key element in their finances. The Guardian on 14 September 1996 carried a report on the finances of England’s biggest club, Manchester United:

Of United’s £60 million turnover last season, £23 came from one, surprising source: merchandising – everything from replica shirts and videos to books and bedside lamps. To put £23 million in perspective, we are talking a figure larger than the entire annual turnover of any premiership club except Newcastle. To give an idea of volume, United’s magazine is, at 140,000 copies, the biggest selling sports monthly in the UK. In Thailand it sells 40,000 copies a month – in Thai. Its first print in Norwegian last month sold out 9,000 copies in a week. Soon it will be sold in Malaysia in Malay.

Income from satellite television alone means that England’s Premier League clubs will take in £670 million between 1996 and 2001. [3]

The most recent high point for English football was the hosting of Euro 96 and the home nation’s achievement in reaching the semi-final (where they were only knocked out in the second stage of a penalty shootout). At the England-Germany semi-final there were 14,000 people who paid nothing for their tickets as a result of corporate hospitality – 3,500 tickets were given to sponsors, while 7,000 plus were sold through corporate hospitality. [4] The cost of such hospitality by big business was worth a total of £8 million for the whole tournament. The next football World Cup will be in South Korea and Japan. Japanese multinationals have already established a close relationship with FIFA, the competition’s organiser: ‘JVC, Fuji and Canon each sponsored USA 94 to the tune of £20 million, Sony Creative Products have exclusive marketing rights to the 1998 finals and Dentsu control a 49 percent stake in ISL Worldwide, the marketing arm of FIFA’. [5] This is the direct and easily recognised relationship between sport and capitalism. But there is another, hidden relationship.

As England progressed towards the semi-finals of Euro 96 the Financial Times carried the following survey of big business reaction to the supposed euphoria sweeping the nation:

Jeff Forest of Sheffield based Tempered Spring reported: ‘The England performance has given people a lift, and a happy workforce is a better workforce.’ Mr Peter Lowe who manages an automotive plant in Burton-on-Trent, subsidiary of Johnson Controls, ‘believes that a run of England victories will lead to higher productivity’. [6]

If we move beyond the most obvious links between capitalism and sport and ask why it is that millions of people watch sport we must begin with the work process and the reality of alienation under capitalism – just as the capitalists quoted by the Financial Times look to the effect of sport on the work process. For the vast majority of people sport is something they enjoy. It is an essential escape mechanism in their lives. For some it can become the means of clambering out of poverty. For others participation in sport gives dignity to life. For millions of people sport seems to provide an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. For many more watching sport either live or, increasingly, on television provides both a release from workday pressure and an easy identification with an individual, club or country which seems to provide meaning to life. As one veteran follower of West Ham remembers, football provided ‘relief from work, from war … it was a way out. In the late 1920s the times were very hard’. [7]

It is against the reality of work – not just in a factory but in a modern office, school or hospital – that we can examine the role of ‘leisure’ under capitalism. Marx points out, ‘At the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does so with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity’. [8] Elsewhere he wrote, ‘Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at most, time’s carcass’. [9]

In Labour and Monopoly Capital Harry Braverman argues, ‘In a society where labour power is purchased and sold, working time becomes sharply and antagonistically divided from non-working time, and the worker places an extraordinary value upon this “free” time, while on-the-job time is regarded as lost and wasted ...’ [10] Everyone has heard people say, ‘Thank God it’s Friday,’ or has hung around waiting to clock off. The weekend, or whatever time we get off, is ‘our time’ – it is ‘free time’.

Leisure is seen as something distinct from work, something to be earned as recompense for a ‘fair day’s work’. The Polish Marxist Franz Jakubowski writes, ‘The alienation of labour has the effect of an alienation of man from man. Social life becomes merely a means for man’s self-preservation’. [11] Consequently, ‘free time’ is not really ‘our time’ either. Braverman develops the point:

But the atrophy of community and the sharp division from the natural environment leaves a void when it comes to the ‘free’ hours. Thus 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 ...

Braverman 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 is possible’. [12]

Let’s look at some of the ways in which capitalism commodifies and distorts the desire for escape and real, human contact which draws people to sport in the first place.

For instance, one of the often quoted enjoyments of attending a football game is being part of the crowd. Yet at its best the ‘mateyness’ of the crowd is a substitute for the genuine fraternal feelings of human beings. Those feelings can only be fully developed by liberated human beings who are themselves free, autonomous individuals (and we would argue the way to achieve such a society is through the collective struggle of the working class).

Sport, despite the perception of participants and spectators, belongs to the realm of ‘unfree activity’. The rationality of capitalist production, based on commodity exchange, reduces all individuality to a minimum. It organises and controls people not only in their work but in their leisure. Adorno writes, ‘Amusement in advanced capitalism is the extension of work. It is sought after by those who wish to escape the mechanised work process, in order to be able to face it again.’ Adorno points out that the promise of sport is the liberation of the body humiliated by economic interests, the return to the body of a part of the functions of which it has been deprived by industrial society. ‘Sport restores to mankind some of the functions which the machine has taken away from him, but only to regiment him remorselessly in the service of the machine’. [13]

Even the human body suffers under the pressure exerted on individuals to be the ‘right’ shape. The images of what is supposed to be human beauty are displayed before us daily. For many the desperate search for the ‘right’ shape results in pain and misery. The reality is that perceptions about our bodies are socially constructed. They are given meaning by social relations. For much of human history fatness was to be welcomed because it signified wealth in a world of hunger. Perceptions of ‘beauty’ have changed through the ages as even a brief examination of Renaissance paintings will reveal.

Capitalist competition affects every kind of human activity – intruding into love, play and all social relations. In sport obsessive repetition – who can run fastest, who is the strongest, who can throw furthest – increases the alienation of the individual. Sports ideology, like all ideologies, conceals the real structure of productive and social relations under capitalism. These are of course seen as ‘natural’. Relations between individual humans within the sporting institutions are transformed into material relations between things: scores, machines and records. In the process human bodies are treated as commodities.

Ideology would have us believe that sportsmen and women are free and equal. This then justifies them being ranked into different grades. 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.

Let two managers of top football teams who are usually portrayed as representing two different traditions of play – one swashbuckling and attacking, the other dour and defensive – speak for themselves. Tottenham Hotspur manager Bill Nicholson explained that when seeking new players what he looked at above all was ‘character’: ‘Training is vital, repeating and repeating every possible action ... I prefer players not to be too good or clever at other things. It means they concentrate on football.’ He is echoed by Bertie Mee of Arsenal: ‘We are basically concerned with winning matches and that means scoring goals. Some players may be exciting to watch but, in the end, product is what matters. I want a high level of consistency – a man who can produce it in 35 games out of 42.’

In the spring of 1996 Vincent Hanna wrote in the Guardian:

Suppose someone told you there was a regime in Europe where agents scoured the country looking for talented young boys, who are taken from their homes and brought to camps to do menial jobs and train constantly – for whom, because of the intense competition for places, education is cursory. The lucky ones are kept on, bound under a contract system where they can be bought and sold by employers. The successful and the bright do very well. But many of the second-raters will find themselves, in their 30s, on the scrap heap and unemployed.

In any other industry this would raise howls of protest. Yet, as the author notes, ‘thus does Britain produce “the greatest football league in the world”.’ [14]

Discipline and training in modern sport often equals a massive distortion of the human body which can lead to all sorts of horrors. The pressure and the money involved in top class football in Britain have in recent months produced stories headlining three England internationals’ alcohol problems, and two of those refer to involvement in fairly horrendous domestic abuse. In these cases it is not an exaggeration to say that in the pursuit of success the notion of childhood has been destroyed.

In a powerful indictment of the world of women’s gymnastics and figure skating, Joan Ryan reports:

What I found was a story about legal, even celebrated child abuse. In the dark troughs along the road to the Olympics lay the bodies of girls who stumbled on the way, broken by the work, pressure and humiliation. I found a girl whose father left the family when she quit gymnastics at the age of 13, who scraped her arms and legs with razors to dull her emotional pain and who needed a two-hour pass from a psychiatric hospital to attend her high-school graduation. Girls who broke their necks and backs. One who so desperately sought the perfect, weightless gymnastic body that she starved herself to death. Others – many – who became so obsessive about controlling their weight that they lost control of themselves instead, falling into the potentially fatal cycle of bingeing on food, then purging by vomiting or taking laxatives. One who was sexually abused by her coach and one who was sodomised for four years by the father of a teammate. I found a girl who felt such shame at not making the Olympic team that she slit her wrists. A skater who underwent plastic surgery when a judge said her nose was distracting. A father who handed custody of his daughter over to her coach so she could keep skating. A coach who fed his gymnasts so little that federation officials had to smuggle food into their hotel rooms. A mother who hid her child’s chicken pox with make-up so she could compete. Coaches who motivated their athletes by calling them imbeciles, idiots, pigs, cows. [15]

Ryan goes on to chart the changes in modern women’s gymnastics:

In 1956 the top two Olympic female gymnasts were 35 and 29 years old. In 1968 gold medallist Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia was 26 years old, stood 5 feet 3 inches and weighed 121 pounds (eight stone and nine pounds). Back then, gymnastics was truly a woman’s sport. It was transformed in 1972 when Olga Korbut – 17 years old, 4 feet 11 inches, 85 pounds (six stone and one pound) – enchanted the world with her pigtails and rubber-band body. Four years later 14 year old Nadia Comaneci clutched a baby doll after scoring the first perfect 10.0 in Olympic history. She was 5 feet tall and weighed 85 pounds (6 stone 1 pound).

The decline in age among American gymnasts since Comaneci’s victory is startling. In 1976 the six US Olympic gymnasts were, on average, 17 and a half years old, stood 5 feet three and a half inches and weighed 106 pounds (seven stone and eight pounds). By the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the average US Olympic gymnast was 16 years old, stood 4 feet 9 inches and weighed 83 pounds (five stone and thirteen pounds) – a year younger, 6 inches shorter and 23 pounds lighter than her counterparts of 16 years before. [16]

From these observations we can conclude that sport is characterised by: (a) competition – trying to be first, beating an opponent or to do better than others (setting a new record); (b) the notion of record as central – this reflects a society where everything is measurable and quantifiable; (c) sporting scales of value which are precise, very hierarchical and obvious to all; (d) training – which is the hard labour of sport. Training is increasingly inhumane, based on techniques very similar to the production line and involving the same inhumane workpace.

Yet for all the obvious parallels between these characteristics and the broad values of capitalism and workplace relations, the connection between capitalism and sport is commonly rejected. Sport is seen as a timeless thing, something ‘as old as the hills’. Yet for the majority of the time human beings have been on the planet they have not known anything approximating to modern sport. Primitive societies, on the contrary, saw humans co-operate together to eke out an existence. Physical exercise was part of day to day reality rather than something separated from the work process.

Competitive sport emerged with the development of class societies in which a privileged minority – either a military or religious caste – controlled the surplus produced by agricultural societies. It is, of course, possible to draw links and comparisons with what might be termed sport in previous societies. But the function they played in those societies was very different from modern sport and bears little real resemblance to the activities we describe as sport today.

The ancient Greeks are credited with being the first organisers of sport on a systematic basis – the Olympic Games which began in 776 BC are often cited as evidence of this. But Cashman points out:

The games may have been less important as a spectacle than they were as a focal point around which to organise training. Physical fitness, strength and the general toughness that derives from competition were important military attributes, and so the process was tuned to producing warriors as much as sports performers. [17]

The Olympics originated as part of a religious festival dedicated to Zeus. The games were only open to a privileged minority – they excluded slaves and women. The games were closely associated with the development of the state, with warfare between the states, and with the state internally having a monopoly of violence:

Powerful Greek city-states needed defence against outside attacks and they ensured this by encouraging and rewarding warriors. Accompanying the development of the polis was the growth of the state’s control over human expressions of violence; sophisticated social organisation and internal security were impossible without some regulation of violence. The state’s response was to obtain a legitimate monopoly over violence and establish norms of behaviour which discouraged the open expression of violence by citizens and encouraged saving violence for the possible repulsion of attacks from outside powers. Contests, challenges, and rivalries were ways in which the impulse could reassert itself, but in socially acceptable forms. [18]

In both ancient China and Japan there was activity with a ball. When Saturday Comes recently carried an article on a form of ‘keepy up’ – kemari – traditionally played by Japanese aristocrats. It was ‘seen as a sign of breeding, ball control a measure of social prestige’. It remains so among the 30 ageing Japanese who still ‘play’ it. It is, however, not competitive. It is played in a costume dating from the 6th century and, after the players kneel as a mark of respect to the ball, the game continues with the ball being simply passed among the participating males using headers and volleys. The whole thing seems to be a form of meditation tied to Buddhist ritual – rather different to modern soccer. [19]

In other societies sport played a similar role. Among Native Americans lacrosse was often played across several days as a form of ritualised or substitute warfare. [20] Medieval and pre-industrial ball ‘games’ in Britain, usually played with an inflated pig’s bladder, were often melees rather than games. Those that have continued into the present day suggest they were about demarcation of boundaries between or in villages with little distinction being made between spectators and participants. They were conducted according to custom rather than by fixed rules. There is no obvious connection between these events and modern games like football and rugby. Even on the eve of the industrial revolution the work process was largely dictated by the agricultural seasons while artisans still retained a degree of control over the work process. There was time for festivals and play, the maypole being one of the better known examples. As the process of primitive capital accumulation began climaxing in the industrial revolution these were ruthlessly stamped out. Historians like Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson provide a rich history of opposition to this process.

Notions of play and physical exercise have changed throughout history. How could it be otherwise? Many of the institutions that are portrayed today as timeless are in fact a product of systems of production whose role and character have changed as ancient society was replaced by feudalism and as feudalism was replaced by capitalism. The Catholic Church is a good case in point. Marx criticises those ‘who fail to see our social institutions as historical products and understand neither their origin nor their development’. [21] In The German Ideology the point is developed: ‘All common institutions are set up with the help of the state and are given a political form’. [22]

Football lays claim to being the most popular game in today’s world. Yet its origins lie in the ‘muscular Christianity’ of England’s mid-19th century public schools. Their aim was to turn out ‘great men’ in a system based on the survival of the fittest. Soccer was codified by ex-public school boys, the first written rules were drawn up at Cambridge University in 1848, and public school educated men controlled the Football Association when it was formed in 1863. The original FA Cup winners included Wanderers, Royal Engineers, Oxford University, Old Etonians, Old Carthusians. This domination by the public schools was only breached in 1878 when a professional team, Darwen, first appeared in an FA Cup final. From then on professional teams with working class players dominated the sport.

When it was a public school/Oxbridge sport, football was played by young men whose future careers were as bankers, captains of industry or administrators of empire. They required a high degree of autonomy, initiative and self discipline. The emphasis then was on individual dribbling skills. In the very first days of football, prior to 1850, there were no specialised positions. The first functional division was between defence and attack. Then the goalkeeper acquired a specialised role. Even the 1863 rules contain no mention of a goalkeeper – that first appears in revised rules of 1870. Today dribbling plays a very subordinate role in any major team. Ryan Giggs, for instance, will often be in direct contact with the ball for only 15 seconds during a normal 90 minute game.

British football evolved into a traditional pattern of the long ball game or short stabbing passing movements which stemmed from the need to play on waterlogged pitches in mid-winter! But it is the technical conditions of the factory and work, which determine behaviour at the workplace, which have increasingly been reproduced on the playing field by systems of play and tactical manoeuvres to which players are supposed to subordinate themselves.

Football developed in the second half of the 19th century after industrial production had stabilised from the years earlier in the century when men, women and children were expected to work long hours in often appalling conditions. Industrial production required skill – and that required a healthy and relatively content workforce. Saturday afternoon holidays opened the way for popular sport. A quarter of the Football League’s clubs were founded by the churches keen to grow in the new urban working class areas: Aston Villa grew from a men’s bible class, Birmingham City from Holy Trinity Church, Bolton from Christ Church, Everton from St Domingo’s Congregational Church sunday school.

Industrialists too were quick to see the advantages of sport. Arsenal was formed from 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. Professionalism was made legal in 1885 after years in which it had been tacitly accepted. This spread of sport into the working class from above was central to the creation of a ‘respectable’ working class following the upheavals of the post-Napoleonic and Chartist years. [23]

Football was quickly spread across the globe by British engineers, soldiers, factory owners and missionaries (witness Anglicised names like Newells Old Boys in Buenos Areas and AC Milan in Italy). But though soccer may have been played by workers, it was always as a professional game controlled and directed by the upper classes.

Capital by the mid-19 century was shifting away from the methods of exploitation associated with the industrial revolution. It increasingly required a skilled or semi-skilled workforce provided with a modicum of education, health provision and ‘rest’. The employers were not slow to see how these could be used to discipline the working class. Looking back to this period, Ellis Cashman writes:

Behaviour at work was subject to rules and conditions of service. Usually all the work took place in a physically bounded space, the factory. There was also a need for absoluteness: tools and machines were made to fine tolerances. Underlying all this was a class structure, or hierarchy, in which some strata had attributes suited to ruling and others to being ruled. The latter’s shortcomings were so apparent that no detailed investigation of the causes was thought necessary: their poverty, or even destitution, was their own fault.

All these had counterparts in the developing sports scene. Time periods for contests were established and measured accurately thanks to newer sophisticated timepieces. Divisions of labour in team games yielded role-specific positions and particular, as opposed to general, skills. Constitutions were drawn up to instil more structure into activities and regulate events according to rules. They took place on pitches, in rings, in halls – in finite spaces. Winners and losers were unambiguously clear, outright and absolute. And hierarchies reflecting the class structure were integrated into many activities. [24]

Given its origins – and particularly the spread of games like soccer, cricket and baseball which came with the rise of imperialism – the connection between sport and nationalism has always been close. The Turner Movement, the championing of a system of gymnastics and physical exercises devised by Friedrich Jahn, was associated with the creation of German national unity against Napoleonic occupation. Jahn argued that gymnastics was about ‘protecting youth from softness and excess in order to keep them sturdy for the coming struggle for the fatherland’. Official schools’ gymnastic manuals of 1862 and 1868 prescribe exercises modelled on Prussian military drill regulations of 1847. Marching in ranks and columns, turning on the march, wheeling, division into sections, etc. were to be practised under the eye of the gymnastics teacher. These moves were bitterly opposed by the German socialists.

Modern imperialism means more than extending the influence of capitalists from the major powers overseas. It also means sinking deeper roots among the working class at home so that they can be mobilised behind the imperial project. The development of modern sport coincided with the extension of the franchise, a key stage in this process. In 1866 a Tory government under Disraeli took the ‘leap in the dark’ by extending the franchise for the first time to workers – though still on a very restricted basis. Prior to then, parliamentary politics at Westminster had essentially been restricted to a small number of ruling class patricians. From 1866 the Tories began to build themselves into a mass membership party. The ruling class had to develop new ideological tools to establish control over the masses. In Britain this would have included the development of the popular press with the launch of the Daily Mail.

This coincided with the rise of imperialism. Imperialism was not only a question of the subjection of the colonial populations. For Lenin and other Marxists imperialism was important as a means of ideologically tying the masses to their own ruling class through the ideas of nationalism and racism. Organised sport originated in the imperialist nations – they drew up the rules and formed the governing bodies in the years between 1860 and 1890. C.L.R James in Beyond a Boundary shows how cricket was used in the British West Indies to disseminate ideas central to maintaining colonial rule across British colonies. Cricket was spread across Britain’s empire just as US imperialism ensured baseball became the national sport of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and much of Central America.

An examination of when modern sport was regulated and codified gives some evidence of its link to modern industrial capitalism and the state. In fact the process of regulation was closely associated with the rise of imperialism. The Football Association was founded in 1863; Rugby Union in 1871 (Rugby League split in 1895). Across the Atlantic Baseball’s National League was founded in 1876. Three years afterwards six day cycle races began in Europe. The invention of the modern Olympic Games by Baron Pierre de Coubertin – the first games were held in Athens in 1896 – owed something to the English public school tradition but flowed rather more directly from the Franco-Prussian War. Coubertin was convinced after visiting England that Arnold’s methods at Rugby school had been part of the rise of British power in the 19th century and that these had to be transplanted to France. Coubertin also saw physical health as being necessary to win wars. If France was to overcome its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War physical education had to become central to the education system.

In the imperialist countries sport played an important role in bolstering a nationalism which had previously often had only a tenuous hold on popular consciousness. The Tour de France helped create the idea of a French nation state just as football in Italy became a symbol of an Italian nationalism which, prior to the First World War, had been extremely fragile.

Under dictatorships we can see the naked role of sport in our society and its clear connection to nationalism. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were the first to be televised. The games themselves were transformed into a mass propaganda event. Today the 1936 games are best remembered for the slap in the face that the black American athlete Jesse Owen gave Nazism by winning four gold medals. But the impact of Hitler’s propaganda should not be ignored. One Uruguayan journalist recalled: ‘Everything was organised towards a political end … to show a brilliant Germany ... Their effort was a triumph for them because people left enchanted with the country and the treatment they had received’. [25]

Of course the claim is often made that bringing athletes together promotes peace. In his history of the Olympics, Olympic Politics, Christopher R. Hill points out:

If this is taken to mean that athletic competition promotes a camaraderie which inhibits hostility there is not much evidence to support it in top level sport. High level sport is now so closely linked with large sums of hard cash that there is little room for friendship, and investigation of the idea that interaction on the sports field produces friendly feelings has shown that the thesis is by no means necessarily true, at any level.

He then points out,

[that] nearly every celebration of the [Olympic] Games has been marked by acrimony or worse and the recollections of contretemps or disaster long outlive the warm glow of competitive interaction. A catalogue would be tedious, but it is worth remembering that other Games than those held in Berlin in 1936 have provoked international outrage. For example, 1968 saw a massacre by the Mexican government of young people who thought the Games a waste of money. Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinians at the Munich Games of 1972 when the outgoing President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, decided that ‘The Games must go on’. In 1976 numerous African states boycotted the Games in protest against a rugby tour of South Africa undertaken by a New Zealand side. [26]

Since then that catalogue has continued with the next Olympic Games in Moscow witnessing a boycott over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

The same pattern is also observable in other international sports events. The first World Cup final played in Montevideo in 1930 saw the Uruguayan home side come from 2–0 down against Argentina to win the tournament 4–2. In the city that night the home supporters rejoiced. But across the border, ‘in Buenos Aires, the defeated Argentinians raged; mobs took to the streets, even stoning the Uruguayan consulate, and diplomatic relations between the countries were broken off’. [27]

Sport then is totally integrated into a framework of inter-state rivalry, capitalist production and class relations. As an ideology, transmitted on a huge scale by the media, it is part and parcel of ruling bourgeois ideology. The hierarchical structure of sport reflects the social structure of capitalism and its system of competitive selection, promotion, hierarchy and social advancement. The driving forces in sport – performance, competitiveness, records – are mirrors of the driving forces of capitalist production.

John Hargreaves argues that organised sport helps train a ‘docile labour force’ with the discipline necessary for modern capitalism. Comparing sport and industry, he notes ‘a high degree of specialisation and standardisation, bureaucratised and hierarchical administration, long term planning, increased reliance on science and technology, a drive for maximum productivity and, above all, the alienation of both producer and consumer’. [28] He adds that ‘sport is produced, packaged and sold like any other commodity on the market for mass consumption at enormous profits’. [29] And he argues that sport expresses in a concentrated form bourgeois ideology (aggressive individualism, ruthless competitiveness, elitism, chauvinism, sexism and racism) and that its bureaucratic administration is linked closely to the capitalist state.

But Hargreaves is aware that by concentrating large numbers of people together capitalism can create the conditions in which disorder and opposition can grow. Commenting on the crowd he argues, ‘It is precisely this type of solidarity that historically has formed the basis for a trenchant opposition to employers’. [30]

Recently the police have opened fire on a football crowd in Libya, killing many people, after they began chanting opposition to the regime of Colonel Gadaffi. In Spain under Franco hatred of Real Madrid and support for Barcelona could both signal opposition to the regime. There have also been examples of participants using sporting occasions to make a political protest. The most potent was by the two black Americans who finished first and second in the 200 metres at the 1968 Olympics. As they stood on the podium, and as the national anthem was played, both raised a fist in the black power salute (and both were barred from athletics as a result).

Socialists should have no qualms about supporting any such manifestations. From its inception the Anti Nazi League sought sponsorship from sports personalities and campaigned against racism on the football terraces. That campaign helped spawn a number of local initiatives at football clubs, often linked to fanzines. In 1996 this all culminated in the launch of a ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football’ campaign sponsored by the Commission for Racial Equality and the Professional Footballers Association.

Yet we should be careful about exaggerating the general importance of these examples. The main anger of a football crowd is directed against the opposing players and their supporters. That anger can take the form of the worst kinds of verbal abuse, and sometimes of physical violence.

In Britain, recent years have seen a number of rebellions against the boards of directors at a number of football clubs. Yet this too has its contradictions. At Tottenham Hotspur the ousting of the manager and director, Terry Venables, by the club’s owner, millionaire Alan Sugar, saw a number of protests on Venables’ behalf by Spurs fans. Yet it is hard to see either figure as representing the fans’ best interests. At Celtic in Glasgow a highly successful campaign by fans succeeded in ousting the old Catholic middle class families who had run the club since its inception and whose lack of vision and investment had seen the club trail their rivals, Rangers. Yet many Celtic fans must have experienced the strange sensation of knowing that what was really necessary was for the club to be taken over by someone, or some multinational, which could give an even bigger injection of cash than Rangers had received in order to create success on the field. That, of course, would inevitably entail the club following others in promoting overpriced merchandising and introducing seat prices which would prohibit most working class fans from attending matches with any regularity. Competition has its own logic.

Sport without competition, on and off the field, is a contradiction in terms. It is a tyranny over human effort by machines, the watch, and arbitrary rules. This is as true of ‘team’ sports as of ‘individual’ sports. Some argue sport can be about competing against oneself – as if Robinson Crusoe on his desert island were to try to set a new record for running round the island or for outswimming a shark! But such arguments are not only entirely implausible, they also miss the point. The main point goes to the fundamental question of human nature and of socialism. In sport the element of play has increasingly disappeared. Ellul argues:

We are witnessing a process whereby playfulness and joy, contact with air and water, improvisation and spontaneity, are disappearing: all these things are abandoned in favour of obedience to strict rules, efficiency and record times. Training turns men and children into efficient machines who know no other joy other than the grim satisfaction of mastering and exploiting their own bodies. [31]

Former Spurs captain Mike England, in Hunter Davies’s The Glory Game, states: ‘I never say I’m going to play football. It’s work.’ No one was playing in Euro 96, the Olympics or at the last World Cup.

Socialists want to rescue the element of play in leisure. Capitalism creates a large class of people engaged in sedentary labour who need physical activity as a diversion. And it creates a specialisation of labour where even those engaged in physical labour develop only those physical attributes which are useful for production. Socialism will abolish this set-up and create the conditions for the free development of the human body. Under socialism there will be physical recreation – but not sport.

Sport does not equal all physical activity. Sport is one way of being physically active. But it is increasingly an artificial means of achieving fitness. The result in professional (and increasingly amateur) sport often becomes the physical distortion of the human body in pursuit of a record. Take this example:

June 18 1994, the body of 22 year old Russian, Aleksandr Popov, breaks the water of a pool at Monaco, Monte Carlo. Moments later, Popov fully surfaces, having travelled 100 meters through water faster than any other human. In 48.21 seconds, Popov has set in motion processes and mechanisms of immense complexity: for 61 strokes, his every muscle contracted, stretched and twisted; his lungs have filled and emptied repeatedly; his heart has pumped about 6.6 gallons (30 litres) of blood into all areas of the body. [32]

In order to achieve this new record Popov had reduced his body to an intricate machine. At what cost? Who will remember him in ten or 20 years time? What will a 42 year old Aleksandr be like?

Brohm talks of ‘the total, not to say totalitarian mobilisation of the athletes to produce maximum performance. Every sport now involves a fantastic manipulation of human robots by doctors, psychologists, biochemists and trainers. The “manufacturing of champions” is no longer a craft but an industry, calling on specialised laboratories, research institutes, training camps and experimental sports centres’. [33] Taking drugs to enhance performance, far from being a new phenomenon arose at the same time as professional sport came to be used as an expression of newly minted imperial rivalries:

… after 1879 when six day cycle races began in Europe, riders favoured ether and caffeine to delay the onset of fatigue sensations. Sprint cyclists used nitroglycerine, a chemical later used in conjunction with heroin, cocaine, strychnine, and others to make ‘speedballs’ which were given to racehorses before races in the 1930s. The highly poisonous strychnine was also used by the winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon. [34]

There is not a qualitative difference between using drugs to artificially enhance performance and the physical abuse inflicted on the body by other means.

There are of course certain contradictory elements in sport – witness popular opposition to the police among football crowds. At best these are an inarticulate and misdirected protest against capitalism. But even these are rare. Even the love of being in a crowd reflects the atomisation and lack of community we suffer under capitalism, a pale reflection of what real human solidarity would be like. The buzz, the excitement, comes because people see it as a break from the mundane reality of everyday life. But the buzz goes quickly and it isn’t a break from capitalist reality.

Trotsky once had occasion to refer to how the creative potential of working class people is caricatured by popular pastimes. Writing on Britain, Trotsky points out, ‘The revolution will inevitably awaken in the English working class the most unusual passions, which have been hitherto been so artificially held down and turned aside, with the aid of social training, the church, the press, in the artificial channels of boxing, football, racing and other sports’. [35] Elsewhere he adds, ‘In the sphere of philanthropy, amusements and sports, the bourgeoisie and the church are incomparatively stronger than we are. We cannot tear away the working class youth from them except by means of the socialist programme and revolutionary action’. [36]

The one attempt at starting to construct a socialist society took place in the terrible conditions of post First World War Russia. It was strangled at birth by Stalinist counter-revolution. Yet the debates which occupied the Bolsheviks retain their relevance. Trotsky, in Problems Of Everyday Life, attempted to deal with the issue of creating not just a new society but new men and women. There is little or no mention of sport because in the primitive stage of Russian society this scarcely existed for the Russian working class. Nevertheless, there are three points which have some bearing on sport:

  1. The question of amusements in this connection becomes of greatly enhanced importance in regard to culture and education. The character of the child is revealed and formed in its play. The character of an adult is clearly manifested in his play and amusements ... The longing for amusement, distraction, sightseeing and laughter is the most legitimate desire of human nature. We are able, and indeed obliged, to give the satisfaction of this desire a higher artistic quality, at the same time making amusement a weapon of collective education ... [37]
  2. Everyone knows that physical requirements are very much more limited than spiritual ones. An excessive gratification of physical requirements quickly leads to satiety. Spiritual requirements, however, know no frontiers. But in order that spiritual requirements may flourish it is necessary that physical requirements be fully satisfied. [38]
  3. … meaningless ritual, which lies on the consciousness like an inert burden, cannot be destroyed by criticism alone; it can be supplanted by new forms of life, new amusements, new and more cultured theatres. [39]

The case for socialism rests on the idea that humans can be co-operative not competitive. Pre-class societies abound with such examples. The French paper Socialisme Internationale recently told of Jacques Meunier’s description of a game played by the Morés Indians in Amazonia: ‘The player who scores automatically changes team. In that way the winners are weakened and those who are losing are reinforced. The score equalises in this way’. [40]

In a socialist society we will not be alienated – from work, from leisure, from nature. Indeed the divisions between these things would cease to exist. For the first time we would have ‘the right to be lazy’. William Morris subtitled News From Nowhere an ‘Epoch of Rest’ in which we would be free to enjoy ‘the light of the world’. It would be a world in which there are endless possibilities. Most people prefer swimming in a warm sea to a chlorine saturated swimming pool. Interestingly, swimming in the sea is fun, because people indulge in play, rather than in trying to outdo each other. In contrast swimming pools are increasingly laned-off and extremely competitive, intimidating people who want a leisurely swim up and down and making it impossible for a family or a group of friends to play.

Socialism will not be a society where 22 men still play football (far less where another 30,000 people will pay to watch them) or men and women crash 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, doing better than the next person, being the best. It is about obeying arbitrary rules – an ideal preparation for the capitalist productive process.

Naturally socialists understand why people take part in or watch sport. It is an escape from the harsh world in which we live. That is why we do not ignore sport. Rather socialists campaign, for instance, against racism on the terraces and seek the support of sports men and women for such campaigns. Neither would socialists dream of banning or prohibiting participation in sports. But socialists should follow the example of the Bolsheviks in pulling out of all sports competitions based on nationalism, such as the Olympics. Our aim is human liberation and a world of truly endless possibilities, a world in which future generations will look back in wonder at something like the Olympics and ask only one question – Why?


1. Social Trends 25 (HMSO 1995), p. 220.

2. Ibid., p224.

3. The Independent, 16 September 1996.

4. The Guardian, 26 June 1996.

5. When Saturday Comes, May 1996.

6. Financial Times, 26 June 1996.

7. G. Hodgson, The People’s Century (BBC Books 1995), p. 128.

8. K. Marx, Capital, vol. I (Lawrence and Wishart 1974), p. 398.

9. K. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. VI (Lawrence and Wishart 1975), p. 127.

10. H. Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capitalism (Monthly Review Press 1974), p. 278.

11. F. Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism (Pluto Press 1990), p. 86.

12. H. Braverman, op. cit., pp. 278–279.

13. Quoted in J.-M. Brohm, Sport: A Prison of Measured Time (Pluto Press 1989), p. 56.

14. The Guardian, 8 May 1996.

15. J. Ryan, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes (Women’s Press 1996), pp. 3–4.

16. Ibid., p. 58.

17. E. Cashman, Making Sense of Sports (Routledge 1996), p. 60.

18. Ibid., pp. 60–61.

19. When Saturday Comes, May 1996.

20. See The Guardian’s Notes and Queries column, 11 September 1996.

21. K. Marx, Letter to P. Annenkov, 1846, in Marx and Engels’ Selected Works (Lawrence and Wishart 1970), p. 663.

22. K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology (Progress Publishers 1976), p. 99.

23. J. Hargreaves, Sport, Power and Ideology (Routledge Kegan and Paul 1982).

24. E. Cashman, op. cit., p. 73.

25. G. Hodgson, op. cit., p. 144.

26. C.R. Hill, Olympic Politics (Manchester University Press 1992), pp. 35–36.

27. G. Hodgson, op. cit., p. 123.

28. J. Hargreaves, op. cit., p. 41.

29. Ibid., p. 41.

30. Ibid., p. 110.

31. Quoted in J.-M. Brohm, op. cit., p. 41.

32. E. Cashman, op. cit., p. 23.

33. J.-M. Brohm, op. cit., p. 18.

34. E. Cashman, op. cit., p. 145.

35. L. Trotsky, Writings On Britain, vol. II (New Park 1974), p. 123.

36. L. Trotsky, Whither France (Pathfinder Press 1968), p. 102.

37. L. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (Pathfinder Press 1994), p. 32.

38. Ibid., p. 24.

39. Ibid., p. 34.

40. Socialisme International 104, 19 June–3 July 1996.

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