Behind the glory of sports, many of us fail to realize that sport is a multifaceted and dynamic presentation. Sports are often presented as existing in an apolitical arena, divorced from the larger issues that are taking place in the world. In reality, sports are littered with political expressions and ideas. Meaning, sport is more than just an exciting competition, it can be a vehicle for political messages and ideas. The reason the average person might be unconscious of this fact is because these political displays do not get the same news coverage that the lighter and more entertainment based aspects of sports culture do. But, one does not have to dig too deep to see that sports are often used as a medium of communication in politics. These displays can be so aggressive and clear that they transcend the spirit of sport or sportsmanship. The particular situation that I want to use to illustrate these points is the conflict between Israel and the Muslim world, specifically, Israel and Iran. This conflict is not exclusive to the political arena; it bleeds into all aspect of social and cultural life, including sport. This tension between Israel and Iran first entered the mainstream consciousness when Al Jazeera covered the story in their documentary series Witness. In this documentary we get to see the real-world conflict between Iran and Israel expressed through sport. Al Jezeera highlights one case in particular: the boycott of Israel by Iran in wrestling.
Wrestling is the official sport of Iran, and is a place where the politics of Iran is very much present. If a wrestler is paired with an Israeli component for a match, he must forfeit, regardless of the title that is at stake. Wrestling is a platform for the expression of Iran’s cultural citizenship, “ ‘Not only is wrestling hugely popular, particularly with working-class fans, but it occupies a special place in Iranian culture. It is the pride of our people, an expression of Iranian character’, explains Mohammad Reza Teleqani, head of the Iranian Wrestling Federation” (Marks, 1999, p. 548). Official national sports hold a unique position within the cultural, social, and political expression of a country. Issues that exist in a country can be seen in their sports, and through extension, in their athletes. Scherer and Whitson (2009) point out the fact that national sports play significant roles in the construction of a country’s national popular culture. Naturally, sport becomes a venue for larger discussions that exist in other spheres of life.
Sports cannot be divorced from issues in society, culture, or politics. This is why Iranian wrestlers, who often times come from humble upbringings and dedicate their whole lives to the sport, give up defining matches as a testament against Israel. The weight of cultural citizenship is something that many athletes have to bare, regardless if they believe in the things they are asked to do or not. Cultural citizenship defines their place and acceptability in their society, to go against the ideology of their country is not an easy thing to do. Iran is against Israel’s status as a ‘Zionist state’, therefore, Muslim athletes are expected to maintain a united front and reject Israel’s people. Iranian athletes and other athletes from Muslim countries are put in very difficult positions because of the tense politics between their country and Israel. If they do compete or engage with an Israeli athlete they face a serious rejection from their country, for example Leonard Mucheru Maina was stripped of his Bahraini citizenship after he attended a race in Israel (Reid, et al, 2012). Interestingly, Maina was the only Arab athlete to ever compete in the country of Israel (Reid, et al, 2012). The repercussions of athlete’s actions revoke not only their literal citizenship, but also their acceptance into their home culture: they lose their cultural citizenship. To make matters even more difficult, many times when an Muslim athlete does not compete against an Israeli athlete they can face sanctions from the sporting event, and are forced by their couches and country to fake an injury (Haaretz, 2015) to get out of the competition.
(Ayatollah Khamenei waving)
The weight of this conflict extends further than just the game or match, Muslim athletes are expected to entirely rejection Zionist athletes. For example, The Mid East Beast reported that Lebanese Athletes refused to simply share a bus with Israeli athletes at the most recent Olympic game (Nash, 2015). This is just one example of how politics bleeds into sport. There are countless examples in which sports becomes an arena for a larger discourse. Sport is beyond entertainment; it is an embodiment of broader hegemonic understandings (Norman, 2012). The conflict between Iran and Israel, for example, can be traced back to the political sphere of Iranian life. In 2011, Iran went on the record in protest of Israel, the Iranian National Olympic Committee issued a statement, “it is a general policy of our country, to refrain from competing against athletes of the Zionist Regime” ( Haarets, 2015). Iran is transparent in its rejection of Israel. Even Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, tweeted about why the state of Israel has to be, and can be, dissolved. Iranian citizens and athletes alike show unwavering respect to Khamenei, wrestlers have even gone so far as to carry his framed photo around after a win (Marks, 1999, p. 549). To be clear, Iranian athletes are expected to show respect to the Iranian Republic (Marks, 1999, p. 549), but they do not necessarily want to, especially when it means faking an injury to forfeit an important match. Norman (2012), points out the fact that the acceptance and promotion of a national sport is an integral and natural part of cultural identity construction. Simply put, sport is a place of identity construction. Meaning, Muslim athlete’s rejection of Israel is a testament to not only their religion, but also their national identity. They are using their sport as a medium of communication and as a tool of identity production; they are defining their country’s position on a conflict. In addition, it is important to be conscious about the fact that in this particular situation, athletes are not often given an alternative option (Only Simchas, 2016), their political identity expression in their sport is demanded of them. This fact sometimes goes unaddressed because sports are mostly controlled and regulated by the corporate or government sphere (Norman, 2012). Despite having the appearance of being thrilling and enticing, Sport is highly calculated, and there are repercussions when athletes do not express the messages that are expected. This is especially true in conservative countries. Government involvement in sport might be under the table, but it is the animating factor behind a lot of our favourite teams and athlete’s actions. Fereidouni (2015) discusses the impact of sport in social and culture identity creation. For example, the Iranian government increased its expenditures on sports activities in hope of using sport as an instrument of social engineering (Fereidouni, 2015). So, sport can be used as medium of communication, but also a way to influence and persuade people to adopt certain understandings.
Interestingly, when sport is so deeply saturated with political discourse, the spirit of sport can often be lost entirely. For example it is not very sportsmanship-like or fair to forfeit a match because you don’t recognize another athlete’s country as legitimate and respectable. But, politics has a power position in the world of sports, because of this the essence of sport, or the essence most of us recognize, is forgotten. Take, for example, the most recent Olympic games in Rio, an Israeli wrestler won the gold metal without winning a single match because all his Muslim opponents forfeited (Nash, 2016). In situations like this the meaning of the sport itself can be entirely lost in the competition. When the aforementioned Israeli athlete was asked how he felt about his gold win, he said, “I feel great. Well rested. This is the least anyone has had to work for a medal since Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize!” (Nash, 2016).
Sport is often thought of as an arena free of social pressures, and a place where physical performance is of paramount importance. The reality of sport under the mar of politics is that often there is hate and spite that overrides the sport itself. King (2008) argues that sports are greatly different from the way they once might have been, due to the athletic industrial complex, sport has transformed into a huge “octopus with a million legs that affects our lives whether we’re sports fans or not” (p.23). Sport, like any type of entertainment is underscored with emotion and ideology. An Iranian wrestler forfeiting a match against an Israeli is embedded with a collective consciousness that channels and reflects on real life societal conflicts that are taking place between Iran and Israel (Andrei & Rensmann, 2010,). In this process, an athlete is never just an athlete; they are people with cultural and national identities that show through in every avenue of their existence. Athletes can also be mobilizing forces behind change too, but this can often come at the cost of serious retaliation from their team or country. For example, the young crying Iranian wrestler, Peyman Yarahmandi, in the Al Jezeera Witness documentary, sparked discussion about the real world implications about the conflict between Israel and Muslim countries (Dace, 2016). Sports and sports culture can be powerful in discourse about political and cultural inclusion, it can deconstruct and construct ideas about national identity (Andrei & Rensmann, 2010), and what is right and wrong. Sports can clearly be used to spark discourse about issues and inspire change on the global level (Andrei & Rensmann, 2010).
If there is anything to take away from all this heavy talk about the intersection of politics and sport, it would be to be a more conscious consumer of sport. The lights and noise of the spectacle of sport might distract from the fact that sport is infused and embedded in a complex society. There is no way to dissociate sport from the world around us; it is a reflection of social, political, and cultural issues. In many ways, sport is another way to discuss and express ideology and meaning, including the meaning of cultural citizenship. An awareness of the countless intersections of sport exposes the meaning of sport in our society. Sports have many uses and meanings and none of these can be isolated or separated. When considering situations, like the Israeli boycott, it is important to ask why and uncover the meaning behind the action. If you look closely at sport and ask these important questions, the complex web of meaning and ideology is not too hard to see or contemplate.
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