Marxist Theories of Sport: Nation, Commerce and Pleasure

Rather than proceeding with full Olympic pageantry, the flame canister was slipped into a First Nations peacekeepers car, driven a short way, and delivered to Alwyn Morris, a Mohawk kayaker and 1984 Olympic gold-medalist. Morris held the flame aloft as he jogged through the village, completing this leg of its cross-country tour. But his retinue was decidedly smaller than that which had accompanied other torchbearers: the RCMP phalanx was notably absent.

The message was clear. Canada’s cops were not welcome on the site of the 1990 Oka blockade. The flame, on the other hand, was. True, a few people with a placard reading “Remove the Poison. Remove the Torch,” voiced some resistance to the Vancouver Olympics, a spectacle taking place on stolen land in a city that neglects and incarcerates its Aboriginal population. But criticisms of the Canadian nationalism underpinning the Olympics didn’t resonate widely. Rather, the crowd of a few hundred cheering the flame onward were swept up in another set of sentiments – namely, a belief in the power and goodness of sport. As Grand Chief Michael Delisle Jr. told a reporter, the torch is “a beacon of hope.” Alwyn Morris fleshed this out: “The torch is about unity, it’s about peace, it’s about bringing together family and friends and uniting the country.”

Such sentiments spread well beyond Kahnawake. They can be found in the playbooks of every little league coach and gym teacher, in the mid-century pamphlets promoting company- and union-sponsored baseball teams and bowling leagues, in government policy documents dealing with physical education and community centres, in the rhetoric of major league executives (especially when they’re embroiled in controversy, say, around doping or game-fixing). And lest we forget, these values come from the highest echelons of official Olympic organizing, echoed in the mainstream media hoopla surrounding the Games.

The ideology of sport that inspires such passion can be boiled down to a handful of estimable principles:

  • Fair play among equals;
  • Merit or reward through competition;
  • Self-discipline and perseverance;
  • Teamwork.

These values, of course, dovetail with those claimed by proponents of capitalism and the market. And the Left has been very good at pointing this out. In what follows, I’ll summarize some of the arguments Marxists and others on the Left have made in this regard, categorizing them into two broad approaches: one approach that focuses on the capitalist context of sport, and a second approach that explores how the athlete’s body is disciplined by sport. I’ll then conclude with a couple questions about how these analyses, despite their tremendous strengths, seem to fall short. The problem is that the Left tends to treat the ideology of sport as “false consciousness,” and doesn’t appreciate some of the inherent values that draw people to participate in and watch sports.

Nation and Commerce: Sport in Context

Marxism and the Left have long insisted that sport attributes and values do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, sport happens inside socio-political and economic power structures. These are entwined with patriarchal, homo-normative, racist and imperialist ways of life. Because you cannot separate sport and games from this context, the ideology of fairness and merit that supposedly governs sport is not – in fact cannot be – as it appears to be. There is nothing fair, for instance, about a game that excludes or demeans women and queers; nor is merit the first word that comes to mind watching pro-sports that reward brutality over skill. Rather, sport under capitalism – and the values associated with it – serve narrow interests that ultimately divide and oppress people. Despite the rhetoric, it’s winning at all costs and self-sacrifice that really count, as these (not merit, fair play and self-discipline) are the values that pump up the profits in professional sports, reputations in the amateur field, and endorsement contracts in both.

The modern Olympics are a forceful reminder of how sport serves to divide us. Begun in 1896 in Athens as an international competition for individual amateur athletes, the Games quickly became politicized. By 1912, athletes had to qualify through their national teams, and ever since, national rivalry and patriotism have outflanked the official IOC commitment to human rights and universalism. Commercialism, as well, has an equally long association with the Olympics. Events at the early Games took place literally in the midst of retailers’ displays of World’s Fairs (international showcases of industry and commerce) in Paris (1900) and St Louis (1904).

Over the years, the Games have been a blatant vehicle for international political one-upmanship. This was most famously exhibited by the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hitler, eager to show off Nazi Germany, cleaned the streets of “gypsies” (sending 800 to internment camps in the weeks before) and of anti-Semitic propaganda. The Nazi Olympics also instituted the first torch relay between Mount Olympus and Berlin, symbolically linking the Aryan nation with the so-called founders of civilization. (It is a strange tribute to the power of sport ideology that a practice established to exalt white supremacy is today accepted as its timeless, sacred symbol.)

Olympic jingoism, however, is not restricted to the Nazis. The opening ceremonies of the post-9/11 Salt Lake City Olympics were a glory fest of American might and militarism. New York police and firefighters helped escort a tattered US flag – supposedly the very flag retrieved from the World Trade Center rubble – into the stadium while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang the national anthem. And Mike Erazione, captain of the US hockey team that defeated the Soviets at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, lit the torch. As sociologist Jackie Hogan points out, this nod to the cold war triumph “served as a symbolic assertion of American power, a promise to once again defeat its enemies in the ‘war on terror.'”

And then of course, there’s Vancouver 2010, in which white-settler Canadian nationalism ran rampant. The overwhelmingly anglo-white spectacle that opened the Games, the ultra-hyped “Own the Podium” program, and the personal phone calls from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to gold medal winners are just a few examples. And, as with previous Olympics (and in a trend that’s intensified since Los Angeles 1984), the Vancouver Games are first and foremost a media spectacle. With at least $1 billion in advertising revenue at stake, sport and “sporting values” take a backseat to profit.

The organizing principle is not about showcasing athletic skill and teamwork. Nor is it equal competition and the joy of fair play. And it certainly isn’t about the safety and welfare of the athletes. Rather, it is about attracting as wide an audience as possible. That’s the reason new, more dangerous sports like Snowboarding Cross and Downhill Cross – in which four competitors race against each other (rather than performing solo runs, racing against the clock), were introduced. That’s also why the Vancouver Games organizers boasted about building the world’s fastest luge run – the very track that was allegedly responsible for the death of Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili. And all this is in the context of amateur sport. In professional sport, these traits are even more pronounced.

Disciplining the Body

The second, less prominent current in the Left critique of sport begins with the athlete herself. This approach was articulated in the 1960s and 1970s by European Marxists, influenced by Herbert Marcuse’s Freudian Marxism and hasn’t been, as far as I can tell, developed much since then. Analysis is centred on the body rather than on the game or the competitive aspect. The argument is that sport disciplines the athlete’s body in such a way that sensual, bodily pleasures are repressed, and the athlete’s body is ultimately alienated from (that is, seen as distinct from, and beyond the control of) athlete’s self.

In 1976 French TK Jean-Marie Brohm wrote that, contrary to being a release from the rigour and toil of everyday life, sport extends it, making the body fit for capitalism. It submits the body to a regime of repetitive skills training, reflecting the actions and rhythms of the assembly line; and it institutes a hierarchical coach-athlete relationship, teaching the body to submit to authority. Rules and the drive toward efficient movements and record times destroy the playfulness and joy of physical activity. Comparing the drills of high school team coaches to military drills of army cadets gives a sense of how far sport can be from play.

Brohm also argues that sport training is dominated by science and technology. Driven to create a competitive advantage at all costs, sport managers and coaches adopt the attitude that there are no limits to what the body can be made to do. This reduces the athlete’s body to a machine, a thing to be worked on by other machines, calibrated with special diets and drugs, and fitted with cutting edge equipment – all to break down the (natural, physical, sensual) barriers of pain, time and geography. This compromises the bodily development and safety of the athlete.

Brohm points to a 1960s controversy over wind-resistant ski suits developed in a bid to max out downhill speeds (to up to 80 and 90 mph) – suits that were later banned, but not before a number of skiers suffered tragic accidents. According to a French team doctor at the time, “A ski team is virtually a hospital.” Compare that comment to what chief medical officer Jack Taunton had to say in the wake of the Vancouver Games luge tragedy. While posted at the pre-Games training sessions, he told the Globe and Mail, “I was hospitalizing three to four people a day … Head injuries, ruptured livers, ruptured spleens, compression lumbar fractures.” In other words, little has changed in the four decades since Brohm was writing.

What is true of amateur sports where the body is concerned is doubly true of professional sport. The participant is not only an “athlete,” the performer of the sport, but also a worker, caught up in a system of profit making to enrich their “owners” (that word, and its connotations of slavery, is worth pausing over). Indeed, while all of us depend on our bodies to perform to rigorous standards so that we can sell our labour, for athletes such bodily demands are far more exalted and intense. This fact gives team managers and owners an excessive interest in athletes’ bodies – something that becomes abundantly clear when one considers the example of steroid use in professional baseball.

Between 1972 and 1994, there were eight work stoppages in pro baseball, the last of which had resulted in the cancelling of the World Series and flagging attendance the following year. In a bid to win fans back to the game, major league owners instituted a series of changes including interleague play, realignment and a wild-card team system for the playoffs. Less openly, they contrived to induce more home runs by pushing “dietary supplements” in the locker rooms. They were aided by the Clinton administration, which passed a law essentially deregulating the industry.

As a result, coaches and managers started including weight-lifting and dietary supplements like the now-banned Androstenedione (andro) as a regular part of training. Dave Zirin reports in his 2008 book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States that “after the 1998 home run race [with Sammy Sosa], in which Mark McGwire kept andro in his locker, its sales rose 500 percent to $55 million per year.” The dingers just kept on coming. Zirin offers the following comparison: in the 119 seasons between the 1876 and 1994 seasons, 18 players had hit 50 home runs per season, whereas the same number of players reached that goal in just eight seasons between 1995 and 2002. The fans started coming back, as did the mega-profits.

And it wasn’t just the club owners who benefited. Zirin quotes baseball announcer Joe Morgan as saying, “There would be times when I would make comments about what I was seeing out there, especially when players had no business driving balls to different parts of the ball park. I’m talking about guys who had no business hitting the ball with that kind of authority.” But when he pointed this out to his bosses at ESPN, he was told to keep it to himself because big media have a vested interest in pumping up the audience size as well.

The trouble is many of those steroids did untold harm to the bodies of the athletes. In fact, the then-legal drug Ephedra has been linked to the deaths of two pro athletes: Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler and Minnesota Viking offensive lineman Korey Stringer. And while some of the worst drugs have now been banned, the push to increase performance by other methods has only intensified. The baseball steroid controversy is just one example of the way in which capitalist sport “imprisons” bodies (to use Brohm’s term), sometimes to the point of death. There are plenty of others, many of which Zirin writes about in both A People’s History of Sport and his 2007 book Welcome to the Terrordome, as well as in his columns at

The Pleasure of Sport

These two strands of critique – that which begins with the socio-political structure of sport and that which begins with the athlete’s body – clearly overlap. Together, the two perspectives show the complex ways in which sport helps to reproduce a capitalist system that thrives on exploitation, inequality and, most fundamentally, on the denial of human need and pleasure.

These are important criticisms, especially when millions of dollars that could have been spent housing the homeless, providing safe injection sites, and settling land claims, are instead being spent on nation-glorifying ceremonies, the police and military “security” apparatus (in Vancouver, 10,000 officers and Canadian troops cost $1 billion), and building showcase arenas and race tracks that overwhelmingly benefit team owners and media conglomerates.

However revealing and accurate these criticisms are, they’re also lop-sided. In focusing on the repressive aspects of sport to the near exclusion of its liberatory potential, they treat ideology in terms of “false consciousness.” They suggest that most people embrace a naïve belief in the goodness of sport even though it contradicts their “real” interests. But this not only ignores many people’s experiences, it fails to capture, let alone account for, the enduring, very real joy and pleasure people take in playing and watching sports.

But Gramsci’s theory of hegemony reminds us that ideologies take hold in people’s hearts and minds precisely because they speak to something real – to our interests, our passions, our selves. If we’re to understand the ideology of sport as something more than just a way in which the masses are hoodwinked into supporting capitalist culture, we need to try to account for that reality – both at a theoretical and a political level. And we need to think about how that could change our criticisms of the Olympics, and our political strategies and tactics beyond the world of capitalist sports.

Marxists and others on the Left need to understand how and why people value competition and the physical skill and activity involved in testing limits. How and why such things are pleasurable, and potentially freeing. Sport is continuous with work, but it is also discontinuous. It can celebrate fairness, reward perseverance, and create a feeling of community in an alienating, individuating, unfair world – and it does so by expressing bodily sensation, the sensual.

There is something about bodies, and the final inalienability of them, that needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. We can see that inalienability in the sheer physical pleasure in play, dancing, sex, sports, festivals, and even some political demonstrations: areas of our lives beyond the direct control of capital.

Some of this is captured in the lyrics of Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life.” She sings: “I ain’t got no home/ain’t got no shoes/ain’t got no money/ain’t got no class” and so on. And then: “What have I got?/Nobody can take away/I got my hair/got my head/got my brains/got my ears/got my eyes/got my nose/got my mouth/I got my smile,” culminating with “I got life/I got my freedom in my heart.” However much bodies in capitalism and sport are repressed, they can never be fully destroyed. The body has a way of “returning” to – and asserting itself against – the present. Sports (like play) are one way of experiencing that return, even as it takes place in conditions not of our own making. And this is one reason at least why the Olympics, the NHL, and little league are so passionately celebrated.

Accounting for the pleasure of bodies in sport may well be the first steps in finding a way around a one-sided false ideology position. This is not to argue, however, that we ignore criticisms that remind us that pleasure, and thus the body, is never outside of politics. But bodies cannot be reduced to politics either – a point the Left would do well to more fully explore.

More Reading:

Brohm, Jean-Marie. 1989 [1976]. Sport: A Prison of Measured Time. Worcester: Billing & Sons (Pluto).

Hargreaves, John. 1992. Olympism and nationalism: Some preliminary considerations. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 27:1.

Hogan, Jackie. 2003. Staging the Nation. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, May.

Zirin, Dave. 2008. A People’s History of Sport. New York: New Press.

Zirin, Dave. 2007. Welcome to the Terrordome: The pain, politics, and promise of sports. Chicago: Haymarket.