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A Sociologist’s Perspective on the Olympics and EURO2024 as Protest Platforms

Despite the common belief that they should remain separate, sports and politics have always been intertwined. Major sports events often become platforms for political and anti-war protests. Germany will host EURO2024 from June 14, and France will host the Olympics in Paris this summer. Ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza create the potential for protests. Throughout history, sports have served as tools for political expression and symbolic demonstrations, although their effectiveness in achieving concrete political outcomes remains debatable.

PARIS, FRANCE -30 MAR 2022- View of Olympic rings decorations in front of the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. France will host the 2024 Summer Olympics. © EQRoy /

June 07, 2024 04:02 EDT

For as long as anyone can remember, the only certainty about sports and politics is that they should not mix — yet they do. The subject provokes piousness from traditionalists who argue for sports’ purity of spirit and all the neutrality this implies. But it also excites the rebel imagination. What better showcase for a cause than a major sports event?

On June 14, Germany will host one of the two biggest sports tournaments of 2024. EURO2024, as it’s called, is association football’s second biggest men’s event after the quadrennial FIFA World Cup. In July, the Paris Olympics will follow. In the absence of a deus ex machina, both tournaments will take place while military conflict rages in Ukraine and Gaza. Will either or both sports events become platforms for protest against the wars?  

The wars have prompted almost continuous remonstration of one kind or another, primarily in support of a ceasefire, around the world. University campuses, embassies and streets have been sites of protest. The recent Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden, provided an attractive showcase. On the day of the competition’s grand final, 10,000–12,000 protesters gathered on the central Stortorget square of the Swedish host city before marching toward the contest venue, waving Palestinian flags and shouting “Eurovision united by genocide” — a play on the contest’s official slogan, “United by music.” Earlier, there had been a more modest pro-Israel demonstration. Neither side missed the golden opportunity for widespread publicity.

Eurovision draws a formidable 162 million TV viewers, who will have been aware of the railing. But this figure is eclipsed by the viewers who watch football. 5.23 billion cumulatively watched the 2022 edition of the European Football Championship, according to the Union of European Football Associations — that’s nearly 122 times the combined population of Ukraine, Israel and Palestine. Any march, blockade, sit-down or exhibition is likely to be seen worldwide.

Sports and politics have a long history together

Despite sports administrators’ refusal to acknowledge it, the affinity between sports and politics is undeniable. A political ideal inspired the modern Olympic games: Their creator, Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937), reimagined the ancient Greek religious, literary, musical and athletic festival as stripped down — a good-natured competition between nations and one with substantial symbolic value. Having witnessed the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), the rise of nationalism and militarism, colonial conflicts and the events that would eventually lead to World War I, de Coubertin suspected a multi-sports event could bring nations together. So, a large part of the games’ remit was to counterbalance the gathering forces in late nineteenth-century Europe.

The 1900 Paris Olympics, integrated into Exposition Universelle, an international event showcasing technological and cultural achievements, would have encouraged De Coubertin, an enthusiastic propagandist for world peace. He was less encouraged by the 1936 Berlin games in the year before his death. The Berlin tournament was an effective showcase for Nazis’ administrative expertise and competence: It staged arguably the most successful sports tournament up to that point in history, featuring 49 nations. The games were also intended to promote the destructive ideology of an “Aryan race.”

Sports has also been deployed as a conduit of opposition and, at times, at least appeared to influence social and political change. Many people credit the international sporting boycott of apartheid-era South Africa (from 1964 to 1992) with helping to end segregation and bring about the rise of the African National Congress (ANC) led by Nelson Mandela in 1994.

In 1977, Commonwealth nations agreed to exclude South Africa from international competition in Gleneagles, Scotland. The ban effectively froze South Africa out of major sports and turned it into a pariah state. Teams and individuals refrained from visiting or competing against the country, although not all observed the ban. 

It is satisfying to believe sports, activities that ostensibly promote unity of action and feeling, played a part in ending a regime based on racist separation and abominable inequality. But there’s no hard evidence to corroborate this unless we rely on conjecture and inference. On the other hand, the boycott certainly did not harm the anti-apartheid movement.

Dramatic protests by athletes

Disruption and mayhem can catalyze new friendships and insights, like breaking eggs to make omelets. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, two African American athletes dramatically revealed their disdain for the US by bowing their heads and raising their gloved fists defiantly while on the victory rostrum. Tommie Smith and John Carlos are now hailed as fearless pioneers who changed the world’s perception of the American Dream. However, they were condemned and expelled from the games at the time.

Cultural rehabilitation came slowly and the “black power salute,” as it became known, is now regarded as a totemic moment in the history of modern USA. It’s tempting to exaggerate its impact, but the symbolic demonstration of resistance has become critical over the decades. Smith and Carlos captured the rebellious mood of the 1960s when much of the USA was affected by civil uprising.

Similarly, Colin Kaepernick’s motion in 2016 engaged a nation horrified by the deaths of two black men on consecutive days in July in different parts of the USA. Police officers fatally shot both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the former in Louisiana and the latter in Minnesota. In August, Kaepernick, then playing for the National Football League’s (NFL’s) San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand during the playing of the American national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in 2016. He dramatized his stand further when he dropped to one knee during the anthem. It synced perfectly with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that had emerged three years earlier and set off a chain reaction.

Sports brings many benefits — is world peace one of them?

Over the following years, European football embraced the knee gesture and encouraged observance before games. Other sports were not so keen. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, warned athletes against political protests, calling on them to avoid “divisive” statements that could overshadow the world’s biggest sporting event. “The podium and the medal ceremonies are not made … for a political or other demonstration,” Bach said prior to the Covid-delayed Tokyo games in 2021.

US shot-putter Raven Saunders, who is queer, fashioned her own protest as she collected her silver medal, crossing her arms representing, in her words, “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” 11 other Formula One drivers joined Lewis Hamilton as he took a knee before the start of the Styrian Grand Prix in Austria.

Just Stop Oil, a British environmentalist group that opposes the use of fossil fuels, spectacularly ambushed the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield, England, in 2023, leaping on the baize-covered tables and releasing a cloud of orange powder that disrupted the competition and provided impressively colorful images for the media. The same group staged a less publicized demonstration at Wimbledon in the same year. Earlier this year, hundreds marched to the World Athletics Indoor Championships venue in Glasgow, Scotland, to protest the Gaza conflict. Palestine players wore keffiyehs (Bedouin Arab headdresses) when they entered the field against Australia in November 2023.

The toxin of the Ukraine and Gaza has by now envenomed the political atmosphere in much of the world and opposition to the wars manifests in rallies and marches somewhere practically every day. In this cultural climate, it would be unusual if EURO2024 and the Olympics’ Stade de France did not become protest sites. No one would be caught by surprise. Almost everyone can foresee at least one disruption to the competition. Most fans won’t encourage it, but these are exceptional circumstances in which to pursue what are, after all, trivialities. What’s a trophy or a medal in the context of widespread bloodshed?

Sports have no real reason to exist at all. They won’t save the planet, cure chronic disease, end social inequality or deliver peace on earth. Only fantasists believe campaigners for world peace can bring an end to the two military conflicts. Even concerted demonstrations from fans, players, teams and even organizers are unlikely to make impressions on the perpetrators of war. Like most political protests, their impact would be, at best, part of a cumulative dissent. And, at worst, futile. But is futility such a bad thing? Isn’t any form of protest better than no protest at all?

[Ellis Cashmore is a co-researcher of the report “Will EURO2024 struggle to keep war protests out of football?” published in Soccer & Society.]

[Liam Roman edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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