From Ancient Rome to Adam Goodes: The History of Mixing Politics with Sport

From Ancient Rome to Adam Goodes: The History of Mixing Politics with Sport

It is a conventional wisdom that politics and sport should never mix. Sam Newman said it when the AFL printed the word YES on its logo outside its headquarters during the marriage equality plebiscite. Tony Abbott said it when Macklemore sang ‘Same Love’ at the NFL Grand Final. Thousands of social media pundits say it every time an Indigenous athlete like Adam Goodes takes a stand against racism.

It is a historical fact, though, that politics and sport have frequently mixed, from the Classical Age right up to modernity.

The Ancient Greek Olympics were of paramount political importance, as it was the only time that the leaders of Greece’s disparate city-states gathered together under a religious truce. Here strategic alliances, treaties and marriages were struck, and cultural ties were born and bolstered. In Book Six of his Histories, the Greek historian Herodotus traces the dominance in Athens of the powerful Alcmeonid family, of which Pericles was a member, to a marriage struck with Cleisthenes of Sicyon at the Olympics.

In Ancient Rome, success in the gladiatorial arena was the primary means for a slave to win emancipation and greater social status. Gladiatorial spectacles also became a powerful weapon of persecution against Christians throughout the empire. In the Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla, a disciple of St Paul, is forced to fight bears, lions, bulls and even blood-thirsty seals because of her heretical decision to swear a vow of chastity to God.

In Victorian England, cricket was closely linked to class, and the ostracization of urban, blue-collar ‘professionals’ within the game embodied the insecurities of the traditional aristocracy amidst the social and political upheaval of the Industrial Revolution. The first ever touring national cricket team – the All England XI to the USA in 1859 – was also dispatched with an explicitly political mission, to soothe Anglo-American relations amidst tense geopolitical currents. According to tour-member Billy Caffyn, the team were strictly instructed to do ‘nothing but laud everything American and decry everything English’.

Back in Australia, cricket was key to fostering a sense of national unity and shared identity between our fragmented colonies, and the spirit of the game was seen to define our national character. In 1851, after the first ever game of inter-colonial cricket between Tasmania and Victoria, the Cornwall Chronicle wrote that ‘the visit of the gentlemen cricketers from Victoria to this place occasioned a gratifying exhibition of what may be termed out national character… proof certainly that the general community is not impregnated with the vices of the felon importations’.

17 years later, a team of Indigenous Australians from Western Victoria visited England and transformed the way the English public viewed the native inhabitants of their colonies. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph wrote, ‘contrary to general expectation, the aboriginal team turned out to be a really fine body of men… able to ‘take their own part’ with well-developed Europeans… we take the liberty of assuring those who have been led to believe that Australians are a set of humbugs that they are very widely mistaken.’

In America, sport became a powerful vessel for social change, with high profile African-American athletes like Jessie Owens and Jackie Robinson defying racist expectations. During the 1968 Olympic Games, in a defining moment for the US Civil Rights Movement, black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos saluted with black gloves on the medal podium while Australian Peter Norman wore a badge in solidarity.

In the mid 1990s, South African president Nelson Mandela saved the South African Springboks, a symbol of the Apartheid era, from being disbanded by the National Sports Council, in order to use the team as a symbolic tool of reconciliation. In 1993, Nicky Winmar lifted his shirt in front of jeering Collingwood fans at Victoria Park and defiantly pointed to his black skin. Twenty years later Adam Goodes made a similar stand at the MCG, this time pointing to a young girl in the crowd who had called him an ‘ape’.

What is clear, then, is that neither the AFL, Macklemore or Adam Goodes have corrupted some sacred, apolitical safe space by their actions. They have joined a long, and in many cases proud, tradition of using sport as a vessel for social change. What should also be clear is that those like Sam Newman and Tony Abbott who advocate for a separation between politics and sport are the radicals in this debate, not the traditionalists. Whatever conventional wisdom may dictate, sport and politics have always mixed.

The history of sport, then, does little for the separation argument. Luckily for Abbott and Newman, psychology may offer some support that history cannot.

Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is a seminal work in the field of moral psychology, seeking to accurately describe how human beings form moral judgements and function in moral communities. Haidt’s research found that we are primarily emotional, rather than rational, moral actors, and that our evolution has uniquely equipped us towards ‘groupish’ moral behaviour. These conclusions have wide implications and interestingly they also shape our understanding of the social power of sport.

According to Haidt, humans have evolved to be 90% ape and 10% bee – apes in this equation representing primal, self-interested reasoning, and bees group-oriented, collectivist thinking. For the most part we act as ‘ape-like’, autonomous moral actors – forming judgements, based on our experience and social conditioning, that suit our own preferences and interests. However, we have the innate ability to flick the ‘hive-switch’, transcend our moral prejudices, and ‘feel, for a few hours, that we are simply part of a whole’. Triggers for this hive-switch include drug-trips, rave dances, rock concerts and, importantly, live sport.

The overwhelming emotional experience of watching live sport in a crowd is, according to Haidt, enough to turn off our selfish, prejudiced moral thinking and turn on our ‘groupish’ thinking. Sports fans will likely relate to this phenomenon instinctively – those celebratory moments after a game where the people around us, though entirely foreign, feel bonded to us.

As a result of this effect, sport has a tremendous social power. It can help us bridge social divisions – along whatever lines they may be – by helping us see ourselves as parts of an indivisible whole, rather than as loose, unconnected parts. Sport strengthens social bonds and brings us all closer together.

We don’t have to look far to find anecdotal proof of this effect. In the most intense moments of the Adam Goodes booing saga, fans of all football clubs lined up to criticise Goodes for his provocative anti-racist agenda, with one exception. Fans of Goodes’ Sydney Swans were staunch in their support for Goodes and his agenda, wearing t-shirts with his number 37 to games and carrying large signs with messages of solidarity. It was not that Sydney Swans fans were from birth less racist or more sympathetic to progressive social causes than fans of the other 17 clubs. The ‘groupish’ social power of sport had sidelined any selfish, prejudiced thinking on their part – Goodes was part of their hive.

Haidt’s conclusion has one clear for the implication for the debate surrounding the separation of politics and sport. Politics and sport cannot ever be truly separate, because the social connections that sport fosters will inevitably shape our political outlook. If humans use emotion to conceive right and wrong, and the emotional ‘groupish’ experience of sport contours our emotional palette, sport will, by extension, influence our conception of right and wrong.

The more difficult application, however, is determining whether this social power is best harnessed when political connections are made overtly, or when this power is left to subtly influence our political outlook. Should we carve sport a niche outside the political realm?? Or should we, as countless athletes and political leaders have throughout history, tap into this social power to quickly and overtly further social progress?

This dilemma is difficult to resolve and has no easy answer. I hope, though, that a few things are clear. Firstly, the debate surrounding the relationship between politics and sport cannot be resolved by conventional wisdom. It is not enough to just assume that politics and sport should be separate, because both history and moral psychology tell us that the two are deeply intertwined. The debate at hand is complex, and platitudes fail to honour and recognise this complexity. Those like Abbott and Newman who mouth these platitudes are not really interested in buying into this nuanced debate about the social purpose of sport. Their interest lies not in depoliticising sport altogether, but in purging it of one particular agenda they happen to disagree with. Sport and politics have always mixed, and those commentators in the public domain who argue that they shouldn’t are not just radicals. They are reductive reactionaries, with no wisdom whatsoever.