Sport and Society: For Better and For Worse

Russia 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Logo“Let us realise that in fact, sport is cultural. It does not exist in a bubble outside society or politics. The idea that sport and politics don’t connect is worse than disingenuous, worse than stupid. It is wickedly, wilfully wrong.” So wrote Stephen Fry in his recent open letter to David Cameron, Jacques Rogges of the IOC, and Lord Coe, urging them to reconsider moving the 2014 Winter Olympics away from Russia in light of its anti-gay legislation. In doing so, as well as highlighting the plight of homosexuals in Russia under President Putin, Fry also identified one of the most enduring of sport’s many identity crises: does it exist in order to allow us to escape from the “real world”, or to shine a light on it?

Stephen FryFry writes, correctly, that sport and politics are not two separate spheres; that “it is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village.” The safety of homosexual athletes is only one of a number of areas for concern in a world where global exposure, and tacit international recognition, mean so much. Fry’s intention in writing the letter was not simply to expose the toxicity of the atmosphere that gay people in Russia must endure, but to articulate his concern that the added confidence international exposure will provide Putin may lead him to sanction even worse anti-gay legislation.

The veneer of approval that international organisations such as the IOC provide regimes such as Putin’s can be a vital weapon in their armoury. In stressing sport’s progressive role, the IOC must not underestimate its ability to present a de facto acceptance of Putin’s draconian crackdown on homosexuals in Russia. It was this that Fry was trying, in his letter, to warn against, a subtlety missed by many commentators who attempted to fabricate a division between sport and the wider culture that it both operates in and helps to shape.

The Olympic movement itself recognises the artificiality of any attempt to separate sport and society, both in its founding articles and in the realization of any Olympic event. The Olympics are a cultural and social celebration as much as a sporting one; the legacy of the 2012 Olympics games focused as intensely on the regeneration of East London as much as providing a sporting legacy. Whatever other reasons there may be for not moving the Winter Olympics away from Russia, the claim that it would deprive athletes of the opportunity to compete at an event that they have spent their entire careers working towards is a particularly spurious one, for it ignores the truly holistic nature of the Games. The display of sporting excellence is a key aspect of any sports competition, but it is only one aspect.


The debate about the symbiotic relationship between sport and society, between reform and retardation, will not silence after the 2014 Winter Olympics – if anything, it will get louder. The 2018 Fifa World Cup is also to be hosted by Russia, while the 2022 incarnation will take place in Qatar, where the laws against displays of public affection will affect heterosexuals as much as those of the opposite sexual persuasion. Therefore, there is a strong responsibility on the IOC to make sure that, even if the Winter Olympics do take place in Russia, the issue of human rights abuses there are not swept under the carpet. For all sport’s ability to bring people together and to transcend the most impenetrable boundaries, its appeal can as often be to those who want to conceal and to cover up as to those fighting prejudice and discrimination. The indelible link between sport and power was acknowledged by the likes of General Franco, who viewed Barcelona as a cultural expression of Catalonian nationalism, while both Hitler and Mussolini strove to present to the world their athletes as a means of manipulating international opinion.

Unfortunately, in today’s sanitized, corporate world of sport, those who have vested financial interests seek to deny sport’s duty to appeal to more than simply the thrill of competition and the narrative of the game itself. The competitors, whose livelihoods depend on the financial viability of their sport, and who have dedicated most of their lives to reaching the pinnacle of their chosen activity, are all too happy to go along with it. On the subject of Muirfield’s male-only policy, for example, Tiger Woods simply stated that “I don’t make the policies here … I’m not a member, so I’m not going to speak for the club.” In a similar denial of individual responsibility, Jenson Button stated that in regards to the GP at Bahrain that “the FIA makes the decisions as to whether races go ahead or not. We race at 19 circuits around the world and we’ve got to listen to what they say.” This was despite an appeal to abandon the race, signed by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. The worry for the 2014 Winter Olympics, therefore, is that sport’s all-consuming nature will act as an excuse for apathy, rather than as a spur to reform.

Fry accepts that there is more than one way to skin a cat. He has acknowledged that challenging the prejudice in Russia itself, while the Games are happening, may well be just as effective as moving them. But he also recognises that, if we are not careful, solidarity may lapse into tacit apathy; that being swept up in the emotion of sporting success may mean that other issues are deemed unimportant, or perhaps worse, irrelevant. That is why if, as seems likely, that Winter Olympics do go to Russia, they should be used to challenge, to expose, and to fight the anti-gay prejudice in Russia. Then, perhaps, we will see the true power of sport, and the true meaning of the Olympic movement.

PHOTOS / Yuri Gordon; Joel Rowbottom; Fabienne Jung