A run for people’s emancipation: a critique to 

high performance/spectacle sport ideology

Un camino hacia la emancipación de las personas: una crítica al 

alto rendimiento deportivo y a la ideología del deporte-espectáculo


Professor Adjunto na Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS),

Faculdade de Educação Física e Ciências do Desporto (FEFID)

Pesquisador Coordenador do Grupo de Pesquisa e Estudos Sociológicos em

Educação Física e Esporte (GPES), FEFID/PUCRS

Professor Adjunto na Instituição Educacional São Judas Tadeu, Curso de Educação Física

Prof. Dr. Marcelo Olivera Cavalli







          The study approaches the Olympic Games from an ideologically critical standpoint. It purposely does not consider the benefits of sport to humankind. It stresses the need to emancipate people to comprehend the context of the socio-political environment around them. The text debates on how the Olympic Games are being used, by whom and for what purposes? Do they really represent the best of athletic excellence and fair-play, or there are other aspects hidden under their slogans and professed objectives? The idea is to make clear the socio-political connections and relations existent between high performance/spectacle Sport and society, as well as to make evident the social consequences derived from this interaction.

          Keywords: Sport high performance. Sport spectacle. Sport ideology

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    The Olympic Games are a means for reconciling warring nations and a competitive means to a cooperative end – that is, a world at peace. Coubertin wrote in his Memoires Olympiques (Guttmann, 1992) that they are the quadrennial festival of universal youth. The Olympic Games are also the best we can achieve in terms of sport. They are the supreme example of athlete excellence, a position which everyone would like to be at, or more specifically, every sport beginner’s dream.

    The Olympics are a means to achieve world cooperation, better international relations, friendship, cultural exchange, international understanding and an international celebration of peace. This is easily observed via the symbolism of the Olympics. Guttmann (1992) writes:

  • The interlocked rings are a representation of the five continents and the colors of their many national flags;

  • The torch is intended to dramatize connection and continuity through time and space;

  • The parade of national teams demonstrates international cooperation;

  • The Olympic oath and Olympic hymn are statements of peaceful internationalism.

    The Olympic Games may be all of that and much more, but everything depends on how each individual within society perceives and deals with the Olympics and the ideology that goes along with the objectives.

    In a way or another, a society's perception often suffers from prejudice derived from what Gramsci calls the 'hegemonic ideology'. In this sense, people's ideas of the Olympics might also be biased. They are biased because they 'were made' to think like that. The definitions of the Olympics expressed above are examples of that. That is, the Olympics have many other hidden ideals and uses than just the few ones we could think about. They are much bigger and much more complex, and serve a greater variety of interests and ideological structures than most people may commonly think of. The Olympics became so complex and vital to contemporary world exactly because of those many connections, ideological uses, and means to perpetrate and reinforce political affairs.

    This ideology is very difficult to be perceived and understood by society, mainly because it goes against what most ordinary people believe in as well as what many ‘well-known’ people express both through their discourses and sometimes contradictory actions.

    If one had to analyze the Olympic Games, the question 'What are the Olympic Games?' would be extremely difficult and controversial to answer. Answers given by people with low political and social awareness would be the easiest ones. They would probably be pro-Olympics and superficial ones – that is, answers that would not go deep on the analysis but would reinforce and support the present situation.

    Contemporary people seem (1) to be so unaware of the context are around them and have a hard time distinguishing what is really affecting them – usually take 'traditional' and 'common sense' facts for granted; (2) to misperceive and misrepresent the Games solely based on the modernist idea that they are a step towards good relations, human excellence and world peace; (3) to avoid establishing possible connections between the Olympics (or competitive sport) and other structures of our societies; 4) to like and enjoy the games the way they are – as a spectacle where their 'loved' ones beat the 'hated' ones – and transfer these victories to other scales, such as national, racial, political, social or ideological.

    About the possible connections between the Olympic Games and politics, a few important questions have been raised. Rose (1988) stated that reforms must be introduced to avoid the destruction of the Olympic Games by politics – adhered to the stand that "the Games must go on". Rose pointed out that "what is missing in all these suggestions is a logic that explains how 'pure' sport helps promote peace and how it avoids merely being an illusion of peace or titillating entertainment. The significant question then is: Can the Games be depoliticized? Can politics be kept out of the Games? If so, how? If not, what kind of politics should the Olympic Movement practice?".

    A second question was raised by Coakley (1990) in his book Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies. The title of the chapter is exactly the question: "Sport and Politics, can they be kept separate?". Here Coakley denotes that "as we approach the end of the twentieth century, we know of no major societies in which organized competitive sports are not connected to politics and political organizations in important ways. As societies become more complex, and as relationships within societies become more interdependent, government intervention has increased in all spheres of life. Sport is no exception".

    A third statement was raised by Allison (1993), who stated that "the recognition has grown throughout the humanities and social studies that culture and symbolism are important and real in themselves". The author mentions Gramsci, "whose explanations in terms of culture and cultural hegemony have helped establish the autonomy of cultural symbolism". Using Allison's affirmation, "Politics can now be seen to be about 'who care about what, where and why' or about 'who believes what and with what effect'". Assuming the strict connection between sport and politics, the same can be said about the Olympic Games. The Games are politically controlled and regulated by organizations and institutions.

Connections between Sport and Government

    When referring to government intervention in sport, Coakley (1990) indicates that a number of factors are present:

  1. As sport becomes an increasingly complex part of life in communities and societies, government involvement tends to increase;

  2. Sport can be the scene for problems;

  3. The need for sponsorship, organization, and facilities often leads to government regulation and control.

    Yet, according to Coakley, the extent and nature of the intervention may vary, but it generally falls into the following categories:

  1. To safeguard the public order and to protect individuals, groups, and communities with different interests in how sport is played;

  2. To maintain and develop the physical abilities and fitness of citizens as an effort to improve the overall health among the citizens and thereby reduce the cost of health services. The belief is that sport participation improves fitness, fitness improves health, and good health reduces medical costs. Another belief is that fitness is related to economic productivity;

  3. To promote the prestige of a group, a community, or the nation itself by competitive success in any major international sport event as a means for recognition in international politics and prestige in international relations;

  4. To promote a sense of identity, belongingness, and unity among citizens. Sport can create a temporary sense of togetherness. There are government officials who see this as an important reason for intervening in sport. Serious sociological questions must be asked about the long-term consequences of this emotional unity;

  5. To emphasize values and orientations consistent with the overall political ideology within the community or society. Government can use sport to shape the values of citizens. All governments have an interest in maintaining the idea that success is based on discipline, loyalty, determination, and the ability to keep working in the face of suffering and pain. The Soviet government uses sport to emphasize the importance of "teamwork, common aims and interests, …, collectivism, comradeship, [and] hard work and responsibility for the common cause". In capitalist countries sport is also used, but there are references to individualism and achievement of excellence through competition. In both socialist and capitalist countries there is an emphasis on providing people with words, orientation, and real-life examples that reaffirm and strengthen the dominant political ideology of the country;

  6. To increase citizens' beliefs in the legitimacy of government officials or of the government itself. In the conclusion made by political scientist Art Johnson about the connection between government and sport, he says that "all governments, regardless of ... type, use sport to generate political support" (Coakley, 1990). Johnson points out that if this is not done, those who oppose the political system or the ruling party will use sport to generate support for themselves.

    What is at stake in these political, complex and diverse connections between sport and government? To answer this question, let's use Gramsci’s words as written in Selections from the Prison Notebooks: "Government with the consent of the governed - but with this consent organized, and not generic and vague as it is expressed in the instant of elections. The State does have and request consent, but it also 'educates' this consent, by means of the political and syndical associations; these, however, are private organisms, left to the private initiative of the ruling class." (Gramsci, 1971)

    Gramsci insists that this is not a neutral process. If the State organizes and operates the various elements of hegemony, it does so in a directed and directive way and towards a particular form of hegemony. That is, Sport was and is used as a means to dispense the ideology of the State. This includes "the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules" (Gramsci, 1971). The ruling class shapes society's values and behavioral attitudes through the dissemination of theoretical and practical Sport activities.

    If we realize that there are no governmental decisions taken without political interest or previously planned objectives, and that the Olympic Games have not been an exception, we must apply and consider those assertions mentioned above when trying to answer our initial question: 'What are the Olympic Games?'. Again, the answer is complex, but the objectives of the Olympics should be clear, in accordance with, and emphasize human emancipation. There are many other things more important to deal with than competition, whether in the Olympic Games or in smaller structured contests like national championships and school tournaments and championships. It is through cooperation and human understanding that we can more easily get to the goal of Coubertin and many others: "a world at peace", and associated with peace and human emancipation.

    As Rose (1988) indicates at the end of his paper, "the Games would celebrate all forms of culture, not just the physical culture of sport; they would educate people of one culture about other cultures. But the Olympics will not likely become an international celebration of peace. With armaments the major growth industry of the world, with the continuing failure of the two superpowers to control the nuclear arms race, with the democratic process breaking down, and with revolution the only way to increase one's life-chances, the political problems of the Olympic Games are insignificant by comparison. Only the socially elite or the emotionally crippled can delude themselves by contemplating how to reform the Games without linking such thoughts to reforming the world. Abolish the Games, not because they are 'too' political, but because they pay obsequious respect to human dignity and to an honest yearning for the survival of the planet".

Human emancipation. Do the Olympics represent this concept?

    When talking about the Olympic Games, it is appropriate to take into consideration some questions about the true meaning of human emancipation and the role performed by the Olympics in this context. Questions such as these:

  1. Do the Olympic Games represent human emancipation?

  2. Do the Olympic Games work in favor of or against human emancipation?

  3. What is the role of the Olympic Games towards human emancipation?

    These are questions difficult to answer if we consider that human emancipation – a better standard of living of humankind – is not comprehended in the Olympic expression 'Citius, Altius, Fortius' (Faster - Higher - Stronger).

    What we have is an ideological misrepresentation of what emancipation and similar words, such as progress and development mean. They are erroneously stressed throughout modernist ideology as a meaning for the improvement of the quality and standards of life and of freedom. Science, industrialization, technological advances and research, speed, the Olympic Games, competition, modernization: all are expressed as if they were equivalent to emancipation, evolution, progress, and as if they were capable of producing a better world for all living creatures.

    The core problem seems to reside in the setting of objectives, since there are 'Objectives' and 'objectives' to be achieved. Both represent a set of goals. However 'Objectives' contains the ideological and politically dominant classes' goals. On the other hand, 'objectives' express the people’s goals. In other words, they represent different ideas, intentions and philosophy of each group. Their directions are often opposed to one another. What was pointed out in the past sentences should be emphatically stressed as an extremely important distinction. The recognition of these distinctions makes a huge difference in understanding and approaching ideology and hegemony.

    Government-objectives are in tune with the modernist conception expressed above, but people-objectives may differ from those aimed by the hegemonic system. Gramsci states that "the dominant group is coordinated concretely with the general interests of the subordinate groups". This should be taken into account in order to avoid wrong feelings of evolution and so as not to misconceive social and political aims.

    Ideological use and control has been perpetrated through various areas of study of developmentalist and modernist ideas, economic and industrial developments, as well as competitive sport and activities. A great deal of false information and ideas have been transmitted by non-neutral political discourses and practices.

    Mass communication has played an important role in spreading unilateral information so quickly, intensively, and successfully. Since many people do not have the time, interest or faculty to perceive the facts, unawareness has spread throughout societies. Even worst, many claim as truth such assertions they heard or read somewhere. Ironically, societies are being controlled by many ideologies that we think were created to avoid such control. Instead, these ideologies should fight for people's objectives and represent our wills and emancipation.

    Many other interesting inquiries need to be posted and answered. What is the relation between the Olympic Games (Sport) and human emancipation? What is the point in jumping higher and higher or running, swimming and cycling faster and faster? What good use are we making of the time we save?

Concluding thoughts

    We have to look deeper when analyzing the repercussion of the Olympic Games. Many scholars have been using different approaches to research on the Olympics, as we know that political, economic and cultural ideologies can be found in the Olympics. In the original sense of the term, the Games are not just sports. The Olympics are open to a wide range of political usage as they may comprehend and express ideology, control, social segregation, oppression, discrimination, culture and religion. There are many other meanings hidden under the name 'Sport', and in its most representative event.

    The Olympic Games do not represent just the best of modern sports or finest modern athletes. Since the beginning of the Modern Games there were political objectives to be achieved through them. There is no way to deny that the Olympics are political or that they are being used for purposes other than pure competition between athletes. If the Olympic objectives were pure competition, where would that lead us?

    Ten seconds; 9.9; 9.8, ...; 9.0; 8.9 seconds in a hundred meters sprint? What for? Plus an athlete may eventually receive thousands even millions of dollars for running that distance in that time? There are many people who cannot even walk due to starvation, lack of medical care or welfare. Is that what we should call emancipation? We can talk to the astronauts in outer space; however, some people cannot even make a phone call. Who would they call anyway? Super conductors, what for? To conduct what, for whom and for what purposes? Super computers – many people do not even know how to read. Bullet trains, they are faster, so holidays can be shorter. Humanity is facing a big gap in its history. We are forgetting the basic structures for a decent living, not just for ourselves, but for our children and all living creatures on this planet. The elite are talking about many things, when so many others have nothing.

    There is a connection between the Olympic Games and human emancipation. In one way or another, the Olympics contribute to increasing, reinforcing and imposing social unfairness and inequity. To change or abolish the Olympic Games, we need first to set realistic objectives to strive toward. We must make 'Objectives' equal to 'objectives', and both should be in accordance with social, political, cultural and economic democracy. Both should be in favor of bettering living conditions, protecting nature and solidifying educational objectives. We have to set firm and realistic objectives that aim toward our emancipation and real progress. Only after that, can we set about changing the Olympic Games or creating new Olympic Games.


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