Confinement and Contagion: Sports’ Desire for Inclusion without Politics

Curator's Note

To nobody’s surprise, the head of FIFA criticized the demonstrations accompanying the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil: “they should not use football to make their demands heard.” In contrast, members of the Brazilian team articulated their support for the protests – if hesitantly and still insisting on a certain demarcation between sports and politics. Neymar, the biggest star of the Brazilian team, declared: “The only way I can represent and defend the country is by playing football, and from now on I'll walk onto the field inspired by this movement." His coach more cautiously reversed the direction of influence: “Our job is to give fans motivation to celebrate by doing well on the field [...]. It's all we can do.“ At stake in this controversy are two contradictory features of sports: (1) its separation from everyday life and political concerns; (2) its potential to affect people beyond the demarcations of the field.

ESPN’s trailer for the soccer World Cup (similar to commercials by adidas or Nike) manufactures a trans-historical and trans-cultural ‘essence’ of the sport. It starts by zooming into a magically illuminated stadium inside of which past and present heroes shake hands, show spectacular tricks, celebrate victories, and thrill the audience. The different historical layers are quickly complemented by images of soccer played on the beach and on the street. While presenting sports as contagious and inclusive, the clip – inadvertently – also shows the tension involved in the double process of separation and expansion: Inclusiveness is not a given, but clearly has to be manufactured by processes of mediation and translation colonizing both real and imaginary spaces beyond the confined space of the stadium: only match-cuts allow for a seamless transition from professional matches to the beach; posters of stars glued to dilapidated walls secure a connection between the stadium and the surrounding city; national colors relate the enthusiasm of the audience to the actions of the players.

Whenever someone claims that politics has nothing to do with sports we might force them to look in this mirror: The multiple mediations and translations that allow sports to affect ‘the world’ unpreventably also allow the world to infect sports with its controversies – whether for good (e.g. claiming civil rights) or for worse (e.g. reproducing racism and nationalism).


Markus, thank you very much for this post as it transitions us from the end of the Sochi games as a site of global sports/controversy to Brazil as the next site. As the Winter Olympics come to a close I wonder if we have learned anything about how these events mediate politics that we could apply to the World Cup. For example, the moment when Putin hugged openly gay Dutch skater Irene Wust was particularly interesting as was Pussy Riot's release of their latest video. Both events became global news given the setting of the Olympics and Russia's politics but I'm not sure how to digest their larger meaning other than to further shame the Russian government. I'm not sure if this shame will translate to any change given that the biggest embarrassment of the games for Russia seems to be the fact that they didn't medal in hockey.

Thanks, Markus. The everyday politics of sport is something that I find particularly interesting--particularly as it is packaged for consumption. I would be very fascinated to see how these representations are (or are not) shifting when mediated through ESPN's tentacles in different parts of the globe. I imagine the representation's stability might be as instructive as potential differences.

Indeed, Travis, a more comparative approach would be very helpful here. Sports (and the tension between contagion and separation) is one of the most universally established cultural practices / cultural technologies; since this is a quite abstract mechanism, though, it can flexibly be appropriated to local / cultural / political issues and dynamics. @ Ethan: this surely is not a satisfactory answer to your question, but I would argue that this also is the reason why it is so difficult to evaluate the consequences of politically loaded gestures inside / during the Olympics: it is visible to all, but it is still happening in what can easily be depreciated as a realm apart.

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