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Interview with Richard Arnold

January 23, 2021

When we watch sports, we often see teams representing nations. Research on sports and nationalism explores what is behind the relationship between nations and sports teams or events. Prof. Richard Arnold discusses these studies in his article “Nationalism and Sport: A Review of the Field.” Below, Professor Arnold describes sport’s symbolic power and explains why it is such a useful tool for nationalist agendas.

Richard Arnold

ASN: Your earlier work focused on ethnic violence and far-right movements. When and how did you become interested in the field of nationalism and sport?

RA: I became interested from a variety of sources soon after getting my doctorate in 2009.  Far-right groups have always had links, even if only indirect, to sports and especially to football/soccer. Many far-right groups consider themselves to be ultra-patriotic and use sport as a means of physical preparation for a forthcoming conflict. At the same time, I became interested in the concept of everyday nationalism, thanks to my colleague and friend Paul Goode. Nearly all of the significant sporting leagues and regular competitions take place within a national framework, to the extent that they can't help but co-construct the idea of the nation. I think back to when I was growing up and learning a lot of the place names in England from the football results (which used to be on every Saturday afternoon) that featured team names. At the same time, one of the cases in my book dealt with neo-Cossack violence and discrimination in Krasnodar Krai against the Meskhetian Turks, and its relative absence in neighboring Rostov. I became very interested in preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, and on my last visit to Krasnodar in 2011 there were Olympic preparations everywhere. Exploring the literature around Sporting Mega Events like the Winter Olympics got me thinking about how groups create community through sports - actually, the Cossacks do this as well with the annual World Cossack Games in Rostov.

ASN: Your research focuses on sport's symbolic power, and in particular, the ability of national teams to serve as a proxy for the nation. How do such a small number of people come to reflect an entire community?

RA: I think there are a number of reasons why sport can serve as a powerful proxy.  First, psychologically individuals want to show devotion to groups and there are considerable rewards that come from such demonstrations. Eric Hobsbawm argued that practically every man has imagined himself excelling at a sport and representing his country, and I think that is mostly true. Sport is one of the earliest means of socialization in the world, and children love to imagine themselves as representing their country, thus learning the idea that the team does in fact represent them. Second, in an age where mass war has been banished from Western societies, sport remains one of the regular accessible theatres in which nations can compete. It is a "safety valve" for nationalist tensions. Indeed, the dominance of male sports in the world really epitomizes to me the connection between sport and war- unfortunately, to this day women's sports remain underappreciated, and I think that is because traditionally it was men who went to war and fought for the honor of the nation. Third, international sports remain a communal experience on television at a time when many social forces are promoting fragmentation. It also makes business sense for the media to promote discourses which reinforce the idea that this team on the pitch represents you, because this generates more eyeballs for them and greater subscription or advertising revenues. More generally, sports have the ability to symbolize groups - and the association between certain sports and social classes in England really makes this case. 

ASN: You write that Sporting Mega Events (SMEs) promote a variety of nationalist agendas: they can project authoritarian power, create new myths to replace unsavory historical ones, and unify the nation, to name a few. Do victories and losses in SMEs contribute to or override nationalist, ethnic, and civic sentiments?

RA: The key word in the question, if I understand it right, is "variety." Sport can be used to promote practically any purpose political regimes desire. Accordingly, victories and losses in SMEs can both contribute to and override nationalist, ethnic, and civic sentiments. If a team did really badly, for example, and some of the players who underperformed were minorities, it can be used to promote ethnic nationalism. If a country has an unsavory past, like South Africa, the SME can come to be the stuff of myth and a new basis for cohesion in society. The 1995 Rugby World Cup played this role - and Nelson Mandela understood how important it would be to people. That is only made more powerful if a team does well, as they did in South Africa. So I think the way in which a particular result or performance is understood and preserved in collective memory is really what is important here.

ASN: In the article, you discuss the impact of sports for anti-racism initiatives. However, many sports events, in particular soccer, have been associated with racism and violence. What does this contradiction tell us about nationalism? 

RA: Following on from the last question, I think it shows that neither nationalism nor sport is positive or negative in and of itself.  Rather, it is the political or social use to which it is put that is really important. Yes, various social groups tried to use soccer to recruit and to promote racist ideas but there was no necessity in this - it was a product of a contingent use which could be and was contested by anti-racists. Indeed, it was really fitting that anti-racists chose to use sport to combat racism. It also shows nations to be just forms of groups and not historical inevitabilities. One of the things groups do, that makes groups into groups, is to have leisure activities together, including sport. So I think this contradiction really makes the point that nations are just forms of identity groups.

ASN: What is the next Sporting Mega Event that you are looking forward to and why? 

RA: My favorite sport is rugby, but it is really hard to get rugby on TV in the United States, so I would probably say the 2020 UEFA championships, which will be taking place in 2021 due to COVID-19. Or the 2022 World Cup, which many predict is going to be a disaster, as it is in Qatar, but which will certainly be interesting.

Richard Arnold's full article "Nationalism and Sport: A Review of the Field" is available on the "Nationalities Papers" CUP website.